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I knew footballers like Dirk Kuyt even before he was born. As a kid I played against them in the dunes of his home village of Katwijk on the Dutch coast. I respected and feared the Kuyt type but I never imagined Liverpool Football Club signing one. Yet last month the club bought the Dutchman for about £10m. Today he hopes to start his first match for them, the Merseyside derby against Everton. The temptation is to say he won’t be worth £10m but then Kuyt has always been “misunderestimated”.
On winter Saturday mornings around 1980, the year of Kuyt’s birth, my football team would travel to Katwijk in the back seats of our dads’ cars. Often our opponent would be Kuyt’s future club, Quick Boys. As we passed Katwijk’s churches, chip shops and the bed-and-breakfasts with German signs, sea gales would shake the car.
Quick Boys’s changing-rooms were always packed because Katwijk’s sailors and fishermen all played their football on Saturdays. Sundays were reserved for worshipping the Lord. Every local male seemed to play: Quick Boys currently have 20 men’s teams and 15 teams in the under-nines age group alone. Telling the men from the boys was often tricky because many Katwijk children – raised on fish, milk and the west wind – were already as big as Kuyt is now.
Our opponents tended to be albinos like Kuyt and only had a handful of surnames between them, often Kuyt. They didn’t bother much with ball control, perhaps because the wind and the Lord took charge of that, but in my memory we always lost. Sometimes there were hundreds of spectators. And Quick Boys weren’t even the best club in Katwijk. Their rivals, FC Katwijk, later also became Dutch amateur champions. Having often watched the Quick Boys v Katwijk derby, Kuyt won’t be overawed by Everton v Liverpool.
Amateur football was such a big deal in Katwijk that the local stars seldom bothered joining professional clubs.
Yet at 18 Kuyt signed for FC Utrecht. Nobody expected much of the pot-bellied sailor’s son with Katwijkian ball control but he almost instantly became a regular. The only thing that seemed to throw him at Utrecht was the godlessness. “In Katwijk certain things are taken for granted. I came to FC Utrecht and saw guys who lived with their partners, got a child and only
then got married,” he marvelled.
The Lord only knows what he will
make of the Premiership.
In 2003 a bigger Dutch club, Feyenoord, reluctantly shelled out €1m for Kuyt. Few expected him to cope with the higher level but his unforeseen rise continued: within a year he was Feyenoord’s best player. This was probably because Kuyt works harder than does any other footballer. He treated training sessions and matches as mere episodes in his packed working schedule. When not in the gym, or studying future opponents, he paid weekly visits to a mental coach, a layer on of hands and his personal physiotherapist.
None of this was intended to treat injuries. Kuyt never gets injured.
He went five years and a month until this spring without missing a Dutch league match, 11 months longer than Frank Lampard’s record streak in England. Rather, Kuyt hires healers to perfect an already superhuman body, much as Pamela Anderson got breast implants. He gives an example: “Recently my physio got special soles installed in my football boots. Tests showed I don’t stand completely straight on my feet so that I can’t move my neck fully. Since I’ve been wearing those soles, my neck is free again.”
Besides injuries, Kuyt has also virtually eliminated loss of form.
He is mentally so strong that he almost never plays badly. In each of the last four seasons, he scored at least 20 league goals.
Kuyt exudes the joy of a man in his prime whose every body-part is in perfect working order. Most goalscorers save their energy for scoring. Kuyt gallops down wings and tackles on his goal-line. A better defender than most defenders, he gives more assists than most wingers. His speciality is accelerating while receiving the ball, a horror for opponents.
Because he is never injured and always working, he could advance inexorably from Quick Boys to Liverpool. This is an indictment of other footballers. Kuyt’s rise implies that his colleagues, even those who aren’t sots, are performing below potential. If they all lived like Kuyt, professional football would be better. “Doing your best isn’t a chore, is it?” he asks. “I must thank God on my bare knees that I became a footballer. And I do.”
There is one thing Kuyt can’t learn. No Katwijker will ever develop perfect ball control. “I don’t have the technique of Robin van Persie,” he once admitted, “but of all the Dutch talents I do have by far the best mentality.” It has taken him far: last month his deathly ill father, a tube emerging from his nose, presented him with the Dutch Footballer of the Year award at a gala evening.
But this summer’s World Cup suggested that even Kuyt’s mentality can’t take him all the way. On his first venture on to international football’s upper slopes, his running kept defences busy but in his only match as Holland’s first-choice centre-forward, against Portugal, he failed.
Last month Glenn Roeder, manager of Newcastle, one of countless clubs hoping to sign him, watched Ireland v Holland in Dublin. Holland’s centre-forward duly scored twice.
Sadly it wasn’t Kuyt but the 23-year-old debutant Klaas Jan Huntelaar, scorer of more than 50 goals last season. Huntelaar is the latest to overtake Kuyt in the hierarchy of Dutch centre-forwards.
It’s possible that Liverpool bought the wrong Dutch striker: that although Kuyt won’t flop at Anfield, because he never flops, he won’t quite conquer the place either. However, Kuyt always proves doubters wrong. “My career is a straight line upwards,” he notes.
At the very least he will teach his teammates something about being