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Netherlands captain Wijnaldum is the type of player every team needs

As the madness of the Netherlands‘ opening Euro 2020 match against Ukraine played out on Sunday, Georginio Wijnaldum was one of the Dutch players trying to bring some order to the wonderful chaos. He put in a captain’s performance, too, scoring their opener with a wonderfully taken strike 15 yards out and later, as the match looked to be slipping away from them as Ukraine came back from two goals down to draw the game level, he slowed the play down, helped refocus his team and was in the thick of the action before Denzel Dumfries headed in the game-winning goal.

Wijnaldum looked exhausted after the 3-2 win, but he’d put in the sort of performance that showed why Barcelona and Bayern Munich inquired about signing the midfielder before he announced he’d join another super-club, Paris Saint-Germain, after his Liverpool contract expires this summer.

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Wijnaldum is an understated captain. He leads by example with a relentless workrate, an incredible ability to read passes and a quiet, consistent leadership. But he’s also the sort of player every successful team needs: he’s the glue who can cover all three facets of the modern central midfielder, comfortable as the holder, the presser or the attacking No.10. That’s why Liverpool desperately wanted to keep him and why, for all the hype over his future, it wouldn’t have affected his focus on Oranje duties at all.

If you looked at Frank de Boer’s inbox before the Euros, any concerns over Wijnaldum weren’t high on his pre-tournament panic list. Instead, he dealt with Matthijs de Ligt‘s groin injury suffered in training, the absence of Virgil van Dijk and the criticism of his preferred 5-3-2 formation over the traditional Dutch 4-3-3. There were question marks over who’d start in goal and what combination of forwards would be used up front, but the ever-dependable Wijnaldum was never a concern. His importance is further told through his stats: in his last eight Netherlands matches, he’s scored five and has two assists.

Wijnaldum has already bid farewell to Liverpool, too, receiving a guard of honour in their final home match against Crystal Palace on May 23 and a plaque recognising his success with the Reds, including the Champions League and Premier League title he helped win in his five-year spell at the club.

“It was very emotional,” Wijnaldum told ESPN. “I didn’t think I would get this kind of goodbye. Players that left before me did not get something like this.

“Of course, it’s a pity I left Liverpool. I had a lot of beautiful memories with the team. My relationship with the fans is really good. It is what it is. One day I’ll tell my story about how it all went. In that way, the fans will understand why I left the club.”

Wijnaldum, 30, was unwilling to expand further, but in an interview with Voetbal International, he said “things happen behind the scenes that are beyond your control as a player.” That can wait.

Growing up, Wijnaldum wanted to be an acrobat, but it was in football where he found his calling. Having come through Sparta Rotterdam‘s system, he moved to Feyenoord’s academy in 2004. He still holds the record as the youngest-ever Feyenoord player, debuting aged 16 years old and 148 days in their Eredivisie match against Groningen on April 8, 2007. He was named Man of the Match.

From talking to those who have watched Wijnaldum develop, the consensus is that he was never one to cause controversy, instead staying close to his grandmother, Francina, who raised him.

Gertjan Verbeek managed Feyenoord for part of the 2008-09 season, and remembers Wijnaldum at 17.

“It was early in his career,” Verbeek tells ESPN. “He was a great talent. He was always smiling, even in the hardest training sessions. He was so young, but he already had a lot of responsibility. The influence of his grandmother was very important for him, too. He took care of his grandmother, and his grandmother took care of him and his brothers.”

Verbeek remembers what Wijnaldum was like around the older pros in a Feyenoord team that had respected Dutch internationals. “He was very stable in thinking and in what he wanted to achieve, and how to do it. We had big names in that squad like Roy Makaay and Giovanni van Bronckhorst, but even though he was 17, when he spoke, they listened. Great players understand the young talented players as they respect each other.”

At Feyenoord he was used both as an attacking midfielder and a makeshift striker. He eventually settled into central midfield, where his performances led to PSV securing a £5m transfer in 2011. There, he helped them to the 2015 Eredivisie title, forming a wonderful understanding with Memphis Depay; the pair will hopefully lead the Dutch to success this summer. When he won the Golden Boot in 2015, the prize given award for the Dutch Player of the Year, he tearfully paid tribute to his grandma, who presented him with the trophy.

In July 2015, he made the switch to Newcastle United for £14.5m. After an impressive individual season in which Newcastle were relegated, Liverpool brought him in the following summer for £23m. He quickly became a key cog in the Reds’ midfield under Jurgen Klopp, scoring two essential goals from the bench in their remarkable Champions League semifinal win over Barcelona in 2019.

Like all of Wijnaldum’s coaches through the years, Klopp trusted him in the big occasions: he started their 2018 Champions League final which ended in defeat against Real Madrid, but made up for it when he was again in the starting XI in their 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in 2019. Then, in the disrupted 2019-20 season, he played in all but one Premier League match as Liverpool won their first top flight title in 30 years.

This season, with less than a year on his contract, Wijnaldum’s future started to be the topic of heated debate. The rumours with Barcelona started in September, with his contract up in June 2021 meaning he would be available on a free transfer. Wijnaldum continued to be one of the first names on the team sheet for the remainder of the season, featuring in every Premier League match as top clubs on the continent started calling. In May, Wijnaldum seemed set to join Barcelona: his agent met Barcelona president Joan Laporta twice in late May, agreeing on a deal worth €5.5m after tax — a contract worth €11m net. They had the medical planned for June 7, the day after a Dutch friendly vs. Georgia on June 6, with confirmation set to follow.

On June, 4 ESPN broke the news of PSG’s late bid. Bayern Munich were also interested, but PSG tabled an offer double what Barcelona had mustered together. Sources tell ESPN that Wijnaldum’s representatives were also impressed by PSG sporting director Leonardo, who sold the project well alongside the financial incentives. PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino also called Wijnaldum to talk through his plans for the club. Then, before the Euros started, Wijnaldum informed both Barcelona and Bayern Munich he would not be taking up their offers and would become a PSG player.

“What I can say is that I made a different choice,” Wijnaldum said. “It was a difficult choice. PSG was more decisive and faster. The project also really appealed to me.

“During the European Championship, you want to be one hundred percent focused on the tournament. It was a hectic week in which I had to make choices. They are two big clubs that I would like to play for. It’s a relief that I’ve made the choice before the Euros, because it’s going to play in your head anyway.”

After such a comprehensive club career, Wijnaldum’s just missing a similar level of success on the international stage. His first and only major tournament with De Oranje came back in the 2014 World Cup; he even scored against Brazil as the Dutch won the bronze medal. They missed out on qualification for Euro 2016 and the World Cup in 2018, but all eyes are now on Wijnaldum to join 1988 Euros captain Ruud Gullit in leading the Netherlands to what would be just their second major trophy.

“If you look at the other teams you see a lot of them have a lot of qualities,” Wijnaldum told ESPN. “Some of them also have more tournament experience. But anything can happen during a tournament. The best squad doesn’t always win the tournament. We have to grow and improve during the tournament.”

For the Dutch, that journey began with their 3-2 win against Ukraine in Amsterdam and continues against Austria on June 17. Wijnaldum will lead the team out as a reluctant leader — he’s spoken recently of how he feels the injured Van Dijk or Kevin Strootman, left out of the Netherlands’ squad for the Euros, are more natural leaders — but Verbeek feels he is the ideal man to lead Oranje through this competition.

“His work ethic is very high, always working hard, always stable,” Verbeek says. “He’s the leader, not only in talking, but how he plays in the game.”

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