In a tent amid Doha’s university campus, the player to take lessons from was sitting to Cody Gakpo’s right. Daley Blind knows the value of a searing 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 Robin van Persie’s extraordinary body-flipping header. “It was a great game, maybe that game changed my life,” Blind said. “We’ll see about that for everyone who is in the tournament.”
That outcome already seems nailed on for Gakpo. His teammate had been asked to make a comparison with the winger’s outstanding first week at Qatar 2022, which has brought two goals and directly earned a stuttering side four points. It is hardly a secret Gakpo is destined for higher echelons than those inhabited by PSV Eindhoven but football’s month-long showpiece remains the most significant validator to global eyes. He has blazed on to the scene and the Netherlands’ prospects may, to a large extent, depend on him.
“I’m not surprised,” Gakpo said when it was suggested a start this quick may not have been anticipated. “I know what I’m capable of but it’s always a challenge to reach your 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 rangy frame to beat Édouard Mendy to the ball, breached Senegal when the Oranje were toiling. Then there was the left-foot finish, so truly struck, that seemed to have built the foundations for victory over Ecuador and screamed of a talent announcing itself beyond doubt.
If not screams, the suggestions Manchester United will finalise a long-term courtship when the transfer window opens in January have amounted to loud whispers. “I’m focused on the World Cup but it’s always nice to hear such rumours,” Gakpo said, not exactly swatting them away. “As it stands now, I will still be playing 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 Netherlands team needs to come first. There is certainly work to do on the collective. It struck a chord when, requested to list those areas on which he can brush up, he landed straight upon a need to “help the team more in ball possession, to keep it so that the team can move forward”. Van Gaal’s major bugbear so far is that, with the ball, the Netherlands have been nowhere near the level he seeks. They barely created a chance against Ecuador after Gakpo’s early rocket and were duly punished, although the draw should not complicate their hopes of progress given Qatar are up next on Tuesday.
Positional work was the focus of the closed training session that followed the two players’ audience. Gakpo may be deceptively quick, deft of touch, over 6ft and involved across 34 goals in club and international football this season but he cannot do it all himself. He has been used in two roles already since the competition began, behind the strikers against Senegal and up front when facing 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 everybody.
“He is trying to challenge me to become a better player,” Gakpo said of his manager, who advised him to eschew the Premier League’s bright lights last summer. Gakpo was heavily linked with Leeds and Southampton but would surely be priced far beyond both of those clubs now. Blind laughed when asked whether Van Gaal still had the same gravitas among players as in 2014 when, during the second of three spells in charge, he pitched him in to torment Spain. “Louis is always Louis, what you see is what you get,” came the response.
It is having the right effect on Gakpo. Behind the 23-year-old’s modesty and focus on the unit is the confidence that has fuelled scores of his national team predecessors. They may need it: a potentially revitalised Argentina would be their opponents in the quarter-finals if a hitherto wild tournament reverted to type from here. “Our goal is to be world champions – that is the thing we are trying to reach,” Gakpo said. Nothing in this sport could be more life-changing than that.