The Giant World Cup Rookie and an Enduring Dutch Mystery

DOHA, Qatar — As they sat around the dinner table, Andris Noppert’s family broached the subject as gently and graciously as possible.

He had been trying to become a professional football player for over a decade. At 6ft 8in he had physical gifts and no one would question his determination, his drive. But now he was 26, and if everyone was being completely honest, it didn’t seem to be working out. He has been to four clubs and hardly played for any of them. He had barely made more than a dozen appearances in seven years.

The constant frustration, the lingering sense of frustration took its toll, and that was before anyone even mentioned his injury misfortune. Maybe, Noppert’s parents suggested, it might be time for him to try something else. His wife wondered if a career in the police force could provide a more reliable salary for their young family.

Two years after that attempted intervention, Knoppert found himself at the World Cup, not just as an observer. He has barely played 50 senior games as a professional but is almost certain to start in goal for the Netherlands in their round of 16 match against the United States on Saturday. It is, as Noppert himself put it, more than a little “weird.”

His own interpretation of his unusual career – a long, slow burn followed by a sudden and unexpected rekindling – is that his progress has been slowed not only by a series of injuries but also by his own failure to understand his talent. “Maybe I’ve made the wrong choices sometimes,” he said.

This is an assessment confirmed by those who have worked with him. Knoppert started at Heerenveen, his local team, before moves to NAC Breda, Italy’s Foggia, Dordrecht back in the Netherlands and, after rejecting his family’s attempts to persuade him to go into law enforcement, the Go Ahead Eagles.

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It wasn’t until the latter that he found regular playing time. By then he was “relaxed to be second choice”, according to Kees van Wonderen, who coached him at Go Ahead Eagles and then, last summer, brought him back to Heerenveen. Noppert “lacked sharpness and hunger,” he said.

“Let’s just say Andries didn’t make it difficult not to pick him,” he said.

Noppert’s individual case, then, can be filed in the same category as all the other stirring stories the World Cup unfolds at four-year intervals: the heroes who appear out of thin air, the players seeking redemption, the sudden superstars.

However, his story does not exist in isolation. It is part of a pattern that, from a Dutch perspective, is less poignant and more worrisome. A few years after he may have given up on his career, Noppert is at the World Cup not only because of his determination, his refusal to give up, but also because the Netherlands can’t produce goalkeepers.

There is, of course, one notable exception: Edwin van der Sar, a former Ajax, Juventus and Manchester United player. And over the years there has been a trickle of perfectly respectable, if hardly awe-inspiring, goalkeepers who have won Dutch colours: Hans van Broeckelen, Ed de Gowey, Jasper Cillessen.

However, the supply has not been robust enough to dispel the impression that the Netherlands, a country that produces some of the brightest young pitching talent on the planet in industrial volume, has a chronic blind spot between the posts.

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Knoppert, after all, was selected ahead of Justin Beelow, who spent just 18 months as Feyenoord’s first-choice goalkeeper, and Remko Pasveer, a 39-year-old who made his international debut this year. The reasons for this, offered by Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach, can hardly be boasted.

“He was fit,” van Gaal said of Noppert. “We were impressed with how he played in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. He only stopped the balls he could stop.”

But then maybe that’s all that’s needed. After all, branes are distinctly weak. No major European team outside of Ajax is hiring a Dutch goalkeeper. Seven of the 18 teams in the Dutch top division use imported goalkeepers. Van Gaal took roughly a third of the qualified goalkeepers at his disposal to Qatar.

Former PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord goalkeeper Patrick Lodewijks told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant earlier this year the reasons for this shift from the highly philosophical to the pragmatically economic. Lodewijks spent five years working with the country’s football federation as a goalkeeper coach.

Dutch teams invariably require their goalkeepers, as is the country’s tradition, to have the technical ability to engage in build-up play, he said, but this comes at the cost of neglecting the more basic skills of saving shots and catching crosses.

“The best goalkeeper in the Eredivisie is a German, Lars Unerstahl,” said Lodewijks last season. “Giant, top athlete, great reflexes. But he was second choice at PSV because he couldn’t play football well.”

Meanwhile, the financial reality of Dutch football discourages clubs from investing too much time in their goalkeepers. All Dutch teams rely on generating revenue from transfer fees – even Ajax, the richest and most powerful team in the Eredivisie, made as much money from the sale of two players to Manchester United in a few weeks last summer as from all other inflows earnings over the course of a year – and goalkeepers receive significantly smaller fees than, say, Elven attacking midfielders. The janitorial business is not lucrative.

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Lodewijks suggests the solution is a complete change in the way Dutch clubs think about the position: spending more time on specific training rather than focusing on how goalkeepers can be included in the general game; big teams sending the most promising prospects out on loan to smaller teams where they may have more to do than passively watch “the youth teams make big bucks”.

Until then, the Dutch goalkeeper’s position will remain an unusually fertile ground for good stories like Noppert’s: a place for late-bloomers and homeless talents and future enforcers.

At least he seems well-suited for such a rapid promotion. “He’s a real Friesian,” defender Virgil van Dijk said last week, referring to the part of Holland where Noppert grew up, a place known for its stoicism and outspokenness. (It’s not clear how that differs from the rest of the country.) “He’s sober but very direct. He is a boy after my heart.

Van Gaal is also thrilled with how unfazed Noppert was at the prospect of making his debut for his country at the World Cup. “He’s got the kind of personality that means he won’t be too impressed by this championship,” he said. After all, it would be much harder to be a police officer.

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