Stefan de Vrij: Ready for the next step

Doubts surrounded the Dutch title bid ahead of the World Cup. With the many Eredivisie talents that Van Gaal had in his side, most focus was on the weakness of the defence. Five games in, those doubts have been put to bed. And with Netherlands only conceding four goals so far, the back line has impressed. Bruno Martins Indi has grabbed headlines due to his cheery character and determined defending, while Ron Vlaar has kept players like Diego Costa and Joel Campbell in check. But is it the third central defender that has silently carried on doing the business in every game. Stefan de Vrij is the player holding it all together as the ball-playing defender. The young but experienced defender (age 22 but over 150 Eredivisie appearances) is impressing and is not likely to remain a Feyenoord player for much longer. The centre-back is one with a bright future in one of Europe’s top leagues ahead of him.

De Vrij was a 10-year-old boy from the small Christian town of Ouderkerk aan de Ijssel, in the middle of the Green Heart of the Dutch’ province of South Holland, when he reported himself to a Talent Day at Feyenoord. Just across the street from the iconic stadium De Kuip, the tall and puny defender presented himself to the club for the first time.

Stefan De Vrij is one of a new generation of youngsters who have led Feyenoord's revival.

Stefan De Vrij is one of a new generation of youngsters who have led Feyenoord’s revival.

It was on the 6th of May in 2002 when he played his first match. Later that day, Dutch right-wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn was killed, the first political murder in the Netherlands since the De Witt brothers, two regents, were lynched and killed by an angry mob in The Hague. But that was in 1672, the year the strong, powerful Dutch republic had its “year of disaster”. On this day in 2002, not only the Netherlands changed. It was also a life changing day for Stefan de Vrij.

Raised in a religious town, De Vrij grew up reading the Bible and talking about it in discussion groups – something he still does. At age five, he started playing football for local side VV Spirit, quickly grasping attention from his coaches, leading to him being quickly promoted to a higher age group. Just like his father, Jan, he was a talented player. Jan, was once asked to become a Feyenoord player, but at just 18-years-old, his parents forbade him from making the move of his dreams. Playing football on a Sunday, the day of the Lord, was just not allowed.

After entering the Feyenoord Academy, De Vrij was never the most likely to make it to the first team. In his age group, others were much more talented. Osama Rashid, an Iraqi immigrant and dynamic midfielder, grasped attention from all coaches at the Academy. Shabir Isoufi, a winger brought in from the youth ranks of AZ, was expected to have a great future ahead of him, possibly in the first team. There were players like Henk Dijkhuizen, a defender with shiny blond hair, and Kevin Jansen, a midfielder. Talents expected to cut it at professional football, maybe even Feyenoord.

And there were the outcasts like De Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi – back-up players who were getting minutes in the Under 14 team just once every few weeks. They were cases of doubt. Players who received criticism from their coaches. Players who were unable to pull the trigger on a striker. Too nice.

Yet here we are, at the World Cup in Brazil. Rashid never made it to professional football and is now playing for semi-professional side Excelsior Maassluis, and an occasional call-up for the Iraqi national team. After failed loan spells at FC Dordrecht and Excelsior Rotterdam, Isoufi now finds himself at the bottom of Dutch professional football at Telstar. Once big prospects, they now play their games in the anonymous margins of failed hopes and dreams.

Not Stefan de Vrij. The now 22-year-old centre-back was just this week voted to be the best players in the quarter finals of this World Cup. The child has grown, the dream is living. According to official FIFA performance data, De Vrij is now in the top nine of best players this World Cup, leaving behind him among others some Argentinian player named Lionel Messi and Dutch captain Robin van Persie.

Still, it is only three-and-a-half years ago a teenage De Vrij looked ahead of him and cried hard, while standing in the middle of De Kuip with 50,000 supporters surrounding him. In the worst season in club history, just three months after losing 10-0 to rivals PSV, Feyenoord once again lost an important match. This time small club De Graafschap were too good for the boys of Mario Been. In their own stadium, Feyenoord was outclassed by a candidate for relegation.

De Vrij just could not handle the pain he as a supporter and player of the club felt so intensely.

Maybe he just was not good enough for the hard world of professional football, De Vrij thought. Maybe those criticizing him earlier in his teenage years at Feyenoord were right. But that night, it was Ron Vlaar who threw his arms around the 18-year-old defender and told him he was a great footballer with a bright future ahead of him. A life time friendship was born.

Much has changed in three years. Feyenoord is no club to laugh at or cry over anymore. Under the leadership of Ronald Koeman, the club has regained trust and faith, but more important, the pride of the once champions of Europe. De Vrij is still a young player, but one of the most experienced in the Feyenoord team, having played 153 league games after he made his first team debut in a cup match against Harkemase Boys in the fall of 2009, just 17-ears-old.

De Vrij has been ever-present in Oranje's run to the World Cup semi-finals.

De Vrij has been ever-present in Oranje’s run to the World Cup semi-finals.

For a while, De Vrij even wore the green-white-green armband of the captaincy, reflecting the colors of the city of Rotterdam. But after news broke out De Vrij had, without telling coach Koeman, done some personal training to gain strength, power and muscles, Koeman decided to hand the armband to someone else. For over a year, De Vrij had worn the armband with pride, as a lifetime supporter knowing what it meant to supporters to see a player brought up at the club and raised through the youth ranks, as the captain of Feyenoord. And now he had lost it to Graziano Pelle (who later that season lost it to Jordy Clasie).

In his five years as first team player, De Vrij had to over win  a lot of those who criticised him. The intelligent kid, graduate of a gymnasium, introvert reader of books and the Bible, knew some of them were right. “Maybe I’m to nice for a defender”, De Vrij once said in an interview with NuSport a couple of years ago. For a club that has had killer couples as defenders like Iron Rinus (Rinus Israel), Theo de Tank (Theo Laseroms) and Kung-fu Fraser (Henk Fraser) and John de Wolf, nice may not be a good attribute.

But a moment of clarity changed De Vrij when he brought down an opponents in the quarter final match against Costa Rica, in a tactical and professional way, not provoking a whistle from the referee. The boy has grown, and while still looking like that shy, intelligent kid in the back of the classroom, he is now ready to take down attackers like big defenders can do. His defending qualities are outstanding this World Cup. Against Costa Rica, De Vrij intercepted five and made 13 clearances. From his six tackles, five were successful and he won five of six aerial duels.

This summer, De Vrij is likely to leave Feyenoord. It has been 12 years since he reported for duty at a talent day, and in that time the child has grown to become of the most talented defenders in Europe. With one year left on his contract, Lazio and Manchester United have shown interest in doing business soon. This World Cup, De Vrij has shown how he has progressed himself. Five years after wearing the iconic red and white Feyenoord for the first time, the 22-year-old defender will leave the club as a professional, sharp and, despite his age, maybe experienced defender. Yes, Stefan de Vrij is ready for a next step, a bigger club, a better league and a brighter future.

Mark Lievisse Adriaanse is a freelance journalist who writes about both politics and football. You can find him on the twitter too: @Markla94.

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