Every year, when the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, I re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There’s something about it – a certain warmth and nostalgia – that gives me a much-needed boost of serotonin during a time of year that can be a little depressing, asides from Christmas of course.
These days, I relate to Harry more than any other character, but when I was younger and devoid of deep and meaningful thoughts, I saw myself more in his best friend, Ron Weasley.
There are a number of reasons for this – his hatred of schoolwork, for instance – but there’s one particular thing that made him relatable to me more than any other; what he saw in the Mirror of Erised.
The Mirror of Erised is a magical mirror that shows the person looking into it the deepest, most desperate desire of their heart. While Harry sees his dead parents, Ron sees himself holding the Quidditch Cup, and as a kid, I imagined I’d see something similar.
I grew up being told the stories by my family of how the Netherlands had somehow never won it; they’d had great teams in 1974, 1978 and 1998 in particular, arguably the best at the tournaments, but had always fallen just short.
I wanted nothing more than for us to become World Champions for the first time, not least because I was growing up in England and constantly being reminded by friends of the fact that they’d done so and we hadn’t. It was genuinely all I wished for whenever I saw a shooting star or blew out birthday candles.
Since then, I’ve seen us come second in 2010 and third in 2014, and those near-misses have only increased my desire for us to finally get the golden star above our badge that we deserve.
So, that’s where I’m at heading into my fourth time watching Oranje at a World Cup – simply put, desperate for us to win it.
I perhaps wouldn’t be so desperate if I didn’t think we had the quality to prevail, but I do. I really, really do.
In my honest opinion, this is the best squad we’ve taken to a World Cup since 1998. Granted, it doesn’t have the level of attacking talent that our selections in 2006, 2010 and 2014 did, but the quality further back more than makes up for that.
I’d say we have as good a backline as anyone, one that’s so strong that Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij can’t get into the starting XI and Sven Botman can’t get into the squad.
As for our midfield, Frenkie de Jong is one of the best number 6s we’ve ever had, Xavi Simons is a generational talent and I’m a big fan of Steven Berghuis and Teun Koopmeiners too.
Things may not be quite as good in terms of goalkeepers or forwards, but Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo are world-class players and I won’t hear otherwise.
What gives me even more confidence than such a strong collection of players though is the man leading them, arguably our greatest manager ever: Louis van Gaal.
Every single time we’ve gone into a match with him at the helm since he first returned in 2012, I’ve been obscenely confident that, whatever happens, he can find a way to win or at the very least avoid defeat, and the vast majority of the time, he’s proved me right.
In that time, he’s taken charge of 44 Oranje matches and has lost just two in open play, winning 29. That’s some record.
In 2014, he took us to the semi-finals – where we only lost on penalties – with a squad far weaker than the one we have this time around. I’d say, of that starting XI, only Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and maybe Nigel de Jong would get into our current one.
If he could take home a bronze medal with that group of players, there’s good reason to believe he could get a gold one with this selection, especially given he now has experience of an international tournament under his belt. I’m not saying he will, but I genuinely think we’ve got a real chance.
Mind you, the only other time I’ve felt that way heading into a major tournament was in 2012, and we ended up losing every match and crashing out in the group stages, so what do I know?
My high expectations made that experience all the more painful, so I probably shouldn’t be getting my hopes up this time in case that happens again, but I just can’t stop myself.
It’s a strange feeling, heading into a month-long period knowing for a fact that at some point you’re either going to be utterly heartbroken or experiencing one of the greatest moments of your life. It’s thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
There’s a fair bit of sadness and anger mixed in there too about where this World Cup is being played, in a country that treats migrants and LGBTQ people so abhorrently.
Speaking about that rather than turning a blind eye is something I feel strongly about, because equality and basic human rights are quite frankly far more important than football and respecting inhumane cultures, and I’ll be doing so throughout the tournament.
If you feel the same way, please consider donating to charities such as Stonewall, who do a lot of great work to protect LGBTQ people, and signing up to campaigns such as their’s, #ProudStadium – I’m going to leave a link to it at the bottom of each post I do during the tournament.
And if you don’t feel the same way, well, to paraphrase the aforementioned Ron Weasley and finish this post in the same Harry Potter vein that I started, you need to sort out your priorities.