DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The Netherlands is on the verge of reaching the knockout stage at the World Cup and an overwhelming favorite in its final Group A match on Tuesday against host nation Qatar.
If the Dutch advance it will put more focus on 71-year-old coach Louis van Gaal, who stepped out of retirement just over a year ago to take over the national team while being treated for aggressive prostate cancer.
Host nation Qatar has lost its first two matches and already missed its chance to move on from the group stage. But coach Felix Sanchez says his team will be prepared to face one of soccer's traditional powers.
“When you play against a team such as the Netherlands, you don’t need any motivation,” Sanchez said. "It's a challenge for our players to face such a team.”
“This was a very demanding group for us,” Sanchez added. "We’ve competed with our ups and downs. We’d have preferred to be in a better situation.”
For the Netherlands a draw will suffice to advance and put the team into contention again in a World Cup after failing to qualify four years ago. The Dutch could even get through with a loss if Ecuador beats Senegal in the other Group A match.
In the round of 16, the Netherlands would face one of the top two teams from Group B, where England is the favorite with Iran, Wales, and the United States scrambling for a spot.
Van Gaal said before the World Cup that the Netherlands can win it all, although few see this as one of the country's best teams. He repeated it on the eve of the Qatar game.
“I think you always have to identify the goal, the purpose for which you are here, and then you can work your way toward that purpose. If you say ‘well, the round of 16 is enough, the quarterfinals are enough’, that isn’t the right way to do things,” Van Gaal said.
“The right way to do things is to think you will become champions,” Van Gaal added. “I never said that we’re going to become world champions, but that we can become this.”
He has reason to be optimistic. The Netherlands is on a 17-game unbeaten run since Van Gaal returned to lead the team for the third time.
No powerful soccer nation has come up short at the World Cup as often as the Dutch, who have been the runners-up three times: in 1974 against West Germany, in 1978 facing Argentina, and in 2010 vs. Spain.
The Dutch also finished third in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after losing a shootout against Argentina in the semifinals.
After being out of the game for several years, Van Gaal came out of retirement and replaced Frank de Boer in August of 2021. He said he did it out of duty.
“Because, simply, no one else was available at that time,” Van Gaal said.
Van Gaal's matter-of-fact courage has to be a motivator for the Dutch. But he might also stir up Qatar.
Earlier this year the outspoken Van Gaal said it was “ridiculous” holding the World Cup in Qatar, a tiny country of 3 million. Qatar's vast wealth is fueled by natural gas and oil.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re going to play in a country to — what does FIFA say? — to develop football there,” Van Gaal said, adding that Qatar is too small and lacks a soccer culture.
“But it doesn’t matter. It’s about money, commercial interests. That’s what matters to FIFA,” Van Gaal added.
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