DOHA, Qatar – As they sat around the dinner table, Andris Knoppert’s family broached the subject with the utmost gentleness and grace.
He tried to become a professional football player for more than ten years. At 6ft 8in, he had the physicality and no one would doubt his tenacity, his drive. But he was 26 now, and if everyone was being honest, it didn’t seem like it was going to work. He was at four clubs and didn’t play for any of them. He performed more than ten performances in seven years.
The constant frustration, the constant frustration took its toll, and that was before anyone mentioned the misfortune of his injury. Perhaps, Noppert’s parents suggested, it was time to try something else. His wife wondered if a career in the police force would provide a more reliable salary for their young family.
Two years after that attempt, Noppert found himself not just an observer, but at the World Cup. He has barely played 50 senior games as a professional, but on Saturday he will start in goal for Holland in their Round of 16 clash against the USA. It’s not, as Noppert himself says, “weird.”
His personal explanation for his extraordinary career arc — a long, slow burn followed by a sudden and unexpected ignition — was that his development was slowed not only by a series of injuries, but also by a failure to realize his talent. “I may have made the wrong choice at times,” he said.
This is the proven assessment of those who have worked with him. Knoppert started with his local team, NAC Breda, Heerenveen, before playing for Foggia in Italy, Dordrecht in the Netherlands, and after refusing his family’s attempts to persuade him to go to law enforcement, the Go Ahead Eagles.
Only recently has he found consistent playing time. Until now, he was “at peace with being second choice,” according to Kees van Vonderen, who coached him at Go Ahead Eagles and then brought him back to Heerenveen last summer. Noppert “lacked sharpness and hunger,” he said.
“Let’s just say Andries didn’t make it hard not to pick him,” he said.
Noppert’s case, then, can be lumped into the same category as all the other heartwarming stories that the World Cup unfolds every four years: heroes emerging from nowhere, players seeking redemption, sudden superstars.
However, his story is not private. It is part of a pattern and, from a Dutch perspective, is less impressive and more disturbing. A few years after he called it quits, Noppert won the World Cup not just because of his tenacity, his refusal to give up, but because Holland couldn’t produce goalkeepers.
There is one exception, of course: Edwin van der Sar, formerly of Ajax, Juventus and Manchester United. Over the years, there have been incredibly respectable but unspectacular goalkeepers who have won the Dutch colors: Hans van Breukelen, Ed de Gei, Jasper Cillessen.
The delivery, however, has not been consistent enough to dispel the impression that there is a chronic blind spot between the posts in the Netherlands, a country that produces some of the brightest young talent on the planet on an industrial scale.
After all, Noppert was ahead of Justin Biglow, who spent just 18 months as Feyenoord’s first-choice goalkeeper, and 39-year-old Remko Pasvir, who made his international debut this year. According to Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, the reasons for this are not commendable.
“He was in form,” van Gaal said of Noppert. “We were impressed with how he played just a few weeks before the World Cup. He only stopped the balls he could stop.”
But then that’s probably all that’s needed. After all, the samples are clearly thin. Apart from Ajax, no other major European team has a Dutch goalkeeper. Seven of the 18 teams in the Dutch top league use imported goalkeepers. Van Gaal has taken a third of his available skilled goalkeepers to Qatar.
The reasons for this range from the highly philosophical to the pragmatic economic, former PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord goalkeeper Patrick Lodeweijks told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant earlier this year. Lodewijks worked as a goalkeeper coach in the country’s football federation for five years.
According to him, Dutch teams require their goalkeepers to have the technical ability to participate in team play, as is the country’s tradition, but this comes at the cost of neglecting simple skills such as saving shots and catching crosses.
“The best goalkeeper in the Eredivisie is German Lars Unnerstall,” Lodeweix said last season. “A giant, the best athlete, excellent reflexes. But he was second choice at PSV because he couldn’t play football well.”
The financial reality of Dutch football also prevents clubs from spending too much time on their goalkeepers. All Dutch teams rely on transfer fees – even Ajax, the Eredivisie’s richest and strongest side, made as much money from all revenue streams apart from the sale of two players to Manchester United in a matter of weeks last summer. per year – and goalkeepers are paid significantly less than elfin attacking midfielders, for example. The janitorial business is not a lucrative business.
Lodwijk suggests that this decision completely changes the way Dutch clubs think about the position: spending more time on specific training rather than focusing on the goalkeeper’s participation in the game as a whole; big teams send their most promising prospects on loan to smaller teams who have more to do than passively watch as “youth teams win big.”
Until then, the Dutch goalkeeper’s position remains a particularly fertile ground for positive developments like Noppert’s: a place for late bloomers and stray talents and future law enforcement officers.
It at least seems well-suited to such a rapid rise. “He’s a real Frisian,” defender Virgil van Dijk said last week, referring to the part of the Netherlands where Noppert grew up, where he is stoic and straight-talking. (It is unclear how this country differs from other countries.) “He is serious, but very direct. He is a child from my heart.”
Van Gaal also understood how enthusiastic Noppert was at the prospect of making his World Cup debut. “He has an attitude that means the championship won’t affect him too much,” he said. Being a police officer would be much more difficult.