IIn a tent in the middle of the Doha University campus, the player to take lessons with sat to the right of Cody Gakpo. Daley Blind knows the value of his blistering World Cup debut: he was 24 when the Netherlands beat Spain 5-1 in a modern classic eight years ago and the first of his two assists was for the extraordinary stunning head of Robin van Persie. “It was a great game, maybe this game changed my life,” Blind said. “We’ll see about that for everyone in the tournament.”
This result already seems nailed for Gakpo. His team-mate had been asked to draw a comparison with the winger’s outstanding first week at Qatar 2022, which netted two goals and directly earned four points from a stuttering side. It’s no secret that Gakpo is destined for higher echelons than those inhabited by PSV Eindhoven, but the month-long football showpiece remains the most important validator in the eyes of the world. He came on the scene and the prospects of the Netherlands can, to a large extent, depend on him.
“I’m not surprised,” Gakpo said when it was suggested that such a quick start might not have been expected. “I know what I’m capable of but it’s always a challenge to reach the highest level. I’m not there yet, I think I can improve in a lot of things. But his contributions so far have been those of an all-rounder. A well-timed run and header, using his nose for goal and his lanky frame to beat Édouard Mendy to the ball, pierced Senegal when the Oranje were working. Then there was the arrival of the left foot, if really hit, which seemed to have laid the foundations for victory over Equator and shouted with a talent that was undoubtedly coming.
If not screams, suggestions that Manchester United will finalize a long-term court when the transfer window opens in January have risen to loud whispers. “I’m focused on the World Cup, but it’s always nice to hear such rumours,” Gakpo said, not really pushing them away. “As things stand, I will still play for PSV after the winter break. But as I said before the start of the World Cup, we will see what happens.”
He stressed more than once that the Dutch team had to come first. There is certainly work to be done on the collective. It struck a chord when, asked to list areas he can refresh on, he landed straight on a need “to help the team more in possession of the ball, to keep it so the team can to advance”. Van Gaal’s main problem so far is that with the ball the Netherlands are nowhere near the level they are looking for. They barely created a chance against Ecuador after Gakpo’s early flare and were duly punished, although the draw shouldn’t complicate their hopes of progress given Qatar are in contention next Tuesday.
Positional work was at the center of the closed training that followed the public of the two players. Gakpo may be deceptively quick, skilled in touch, over 6ft tall and involved in 34 goals in club and international football this season, but he can’t do it all himself. He has already been used in two roles since the start of the competition, behind the forwards against Senegal and up front against Ecuador; a player who usually operates on the left for PSV has demonstrated his versatility and Van Gaal’s task may be to find a deployment that brings out the best in everyone.
“He tries to challenge me to become a better player,” Gakpo said of his manager, who advised him to avoid the Premier League lights last summer. Gakpo was heavily linked with Leeds and Southampton, but his price tag would surely be way beyond those two clubs now. Blind laughed when asked if Van Gaal still had the same seriousness among players as he did in 2014 when, in the second of three terms in charge, he launched him to torment Spain. “Louis is still Louis, what you see is what you get,” was the response.
It has the right effect on Gakpo. Behind the 23-year-old’s modesty and focus on unity is the confidence that fueled dozens of his national team predecessors. They may need it: a potentially revitalized Argentina would be their opponent in the quarter-finals should a previously wild tournament return to form from here. “Our goal is to be world champions – that’s what we’re trying to achieve,” Gakpo said. Nothing in this sport could be more life changing than that.