Louis van Gaal believes the Netherlands can win the World Cup because his squad has a “higher average quality” than the group he led to third at Brazil 2014.
The Netherlands begin their Qatar campaign against Senegal on Monday at Al Thumama Stadium. This is Van Gaal’s third tenure, after taking charge from 2000-01, and 2012-14. The latter side included Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder; his current strongest XI is captained by Virgil van Dijk and features Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt.
Van Gaal said: “Van Dijk truly is an excellent captain and this group is keen to execute the job. The 2014 group wanted to execute but the average quality of this group is higher than them. In 2014 there was Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder but Sneijder had to serve the squad [in a different position] as he was usually a No 10.
“I believe in this squad of players. In 2014, we came third with a squad less than this group but [doing well] not only depends on tactical and technical skills but a bit of luck: can you score at the right time, things like that. We could become world champions but there are squads who are at a higher level than my squad but it is about how my squad deals with that. I like to think I can affect this as I have a head start [with his experience] and we can [win it].”
Van Dijk is expected to wear two armbands – the official Fifa issue as captain and the “OneLove” armband which features rainbow colours in support of the LGBTQ+ community and anti-discrimination in a stance against Qatar’s laws.
Van Gaal was asked whether he feared Van Dijk could receive a yellow card for wearing the unofficial one. “I am no longer going to speak about political issues,” the 71-year-old said. “I am focusing on this coming match and I put a full stop on all these issues after we invited the migrant workers to watch our practice session.
“I have requested all my players to stop doing that too because I want them to focus on football and focus on the game against Senegal.”
Van Gaal is without Memphis Depay because of a hamstring problem, though there is hope he can recover to participate in the tournament. Sadio Mané will play no part for Aliou Cissé’s team after surgery on a fibula injury.
Mané is a former Liverpool teammate of Van Dijk, who said: “I called him the next day [after he was injured]. I wanted to know how he was first and foremost because there were so many rumours coming out that he was injured for a while. It was not the best news at the time but there was a little bit of hope but unfortunately he was not able to make this tournament.
“I feel sad for him because I know I hard he worked for this and he wanted to be important for Senegal – he has been important in the last couple of years especially. It’s tough. He’s going to be a big miss for them, like our manager has said, and hopefully we can benefit a little bit from that.”
Cissé led Senegal to a first Africa Cup of Nations triumph in February. Of Mané’s absence, he said: “It is a great shame but now a great challenge for us.”
After Van Gaal left out Jasper Cillessen, who has 63 caps, his three goalkeepers – Andries Noppert, Remko Pasveer and Justin Bijlow – have only eight appearances between them.