There are footballers who do not seem particularly talented at a young age, but almost unnoticed, they improve from week to week. They listen, learn, work hard.
Because they are focused and mentally stable, they rarely play badly. Season by season, they collect more competitive games. And when they reach their prime - their late twenties - you suddenly realize that they have matured into world-class players.
That's how it was with Frank Lampard and Virgil van Dijk. But so was a player that you might not immediately classify in category 1A: Georginio Wijnaldum, Virgil's 29-year-old team-mate at Liverpool and the Dutch national team.
Wijnaldum won the Champions League with their club last season. On Saturday, the Netherlands have qualified for the European Championship in 2020 and can celebrate with their home fans in the evening when Estonia visit the last qualifier at the Johan Cruiff Arena in Amsterdam (20.45 / Stream: Dazn). It is the first tournament participation since the 2014 World Cup for Oranje. Holland owes a great deal to Wijnaldum. He has scored seven goals in his past eleven international matches. And as a midfielder, who is by no means considered a star of his team. Who is this man?
Wijnaldum was born on 11 November 1990, the son of Dutch-Caribbean parents, who liked the sound of the name Jorginho, Brazil's right-back at the World Cup in the same year. From the age of five Wijnaldum grew up with his grandmother in a migrant district of Rotterdam, which was then dominated by prostitution and drug trafficking.
The attacks stopped when he got the ball
To protect him, his grandmother accompanied the polite and modest boy every day on the 45-minute walk to training at Sparta Rotterdam. Georginio initially dreamed of being a gymnast or circus acrobat. Football did not interest him for a long time. But he told his grandmother, "One day I'll take care of you."
At 16 years and 148 days, Wijnaldum became the youngest debutant in the history of Feyenoord Rotterdam. He wanted to become a tenth, but nothing came of it. For eight years he played in the Eredivisie, for Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven. There Wijnaldum developed only to a good multifunctional footballer: hard-working, nimble and skillful. At the 2014 World Cup, he was third with the Netherlands. However, the team's attacks often lost momentum as soon as the ball landed at Wijnaldum. He missed the overview in confined spaces.
Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
Georginio Wijnaldum (r.) And Ryan Babel training in the Netherlands
When he joined Newcastle United at 24 years before the 2015/2016 season, the club dropped straight out of the Premier League. At the same time, Wijnaldum was part of a miserable Dutch generation that missed both the European Championship in 2016 and the World Cup in Russia last year.
Jürgen Klopp was one of the few people who saw something special in him back then. "We laughed and not only talked about football," Wijnaldum remembers the first meeting with the Liverpool coach: "He was not only interested in the football player Wijnaldum, but also in the people Wijnaldum." In July 2016, Liverpool paid € 29 million in compensation for the player.
Wijnaldum realized that every single one of Klopp's workouts was designed to improve players. "He only gets angry if you do not play his strengths," said Wijnaldum. In his case, it was the runs in the open space. If he lost the ball, Klopp never got upset.
The Barcelona game as a turning point
Nevertheless, Klopp sometimes got on his nerves. "It's a bit of a love-hate relationship," Wijnaldum told the Dutch newspaper "Het Parool" about his relationship with his club coach. "He wants the best for all of his players, you can tell it all the time, but sometimes you're completely in the game, and then the coach from the sidelines makes you steam, sometimes it boils over."
When Klopp initially did not put him into the starting XI for the second leg against FC Barcelona in the Champions League in May, Wijnaldum was "angry and disappointed". As luck would have it, Andrew Robertson injured himself during the game, Klopp joined Wijnaldum for the second half - and scored two goals in 4-0. On that wondrous evening of Anfield, Wijnaldum entered the 1A category. Liverpool sensationally reached the final - and won it.
Phil Noble / REUTERS
Wijnaldum (l.) Scored twice in Liverpool's 4-0 win over Barcelona in May
Gradually, the Liverpool fans have noticed Wijnaldums value. They sing to him. He is this rare type of midfielder who has the fitness, pace and agility to cover the entire playing field. A box-to-box player who leads the counter-pressing of a team, rarely loses the ball - and who has learned to time his runs into the box to the second. In addition, Wijnaldum has become a goal threat. At the 4-2 with Oranje against Germany in September, he met once himself and prepared another goal.
It was former Bayern striker Roy Makaay, briefly Wijnaldum's teammate with Feyenoord, who taught him to take some time before graduation and see where the goalkeeper stands. Georginio Wijnaldum listened carefully, learned. And then he got better and better.