Qatar 2022 - Ake: The Netherlands are going to Qatar to win the tournament
  • Nathan Ake discusses being about to become a father for the first time

  • He recalls watching Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder shine at the FIFA World Cup

  • Ake insists the Netherlands' target at Qatar 2022 is to lift the trophy

Nathan Ake’s formerly slow-burning senior international career is catching light under the charge of redoubtable Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal. The Manchester City defender, whose wife is due to give birth to the couple’s first child this weekend, is poised for a prominent role at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ after starting five of the Netherlands’ past eight matches. He joined Virgil van Dijk and young Ajax star Jurrien Timber in a formidable three-man backline to shut out Poland and Belgium in the Netherlands’ September fixtures. Van Gaal, who is in his third spell at the helm and also counts Matthijs de Ligt, Sven Botman and Stefan de Vrij among an enviable collection of centre-backs, has overseen an undefeated 15-match run since his appointment following the Oranje’s last-16 exit at the UEFA EURO last year. Ake acknowledges the consequent raised expectations – and clamour for Dutch success back at home following failure to qualify for Russia 2018 – but insists the Netherlands cannot look beyond an opener against fancied Senegal. The 27-year-old, twice a Premier League champion with City, represented the Netherlands at every age group from U-15s upwards, and is a double UEFA European U-17 Championship winner. Reaching the World Cup marks the culmination of a long and winding journey, then, and Ake will take time in Qatar to think about all those who helped keep him moving in the right direction, including mum Ineke, brother Cedric and father Moise, who passed away minutes after Ake scored his first UEFA Champions League goal last year. Ake made his senior international debut in 2017 and after steadily impressing supporters who had seen the player only from afar, given his entire senior career has been spent in England, after leaving Feyenoord for Chelsea aged 16, has accumulated 29 caps.

FIFA+: Nathan, the Netherlands are among the form teams going into Qatar 2022 following an unbeaten run stretching back to June 2021 and a pair of very impressive victories over one of the tournament favourites, Belgium, this year. How have Louis van Gaal and the players achieved this turnaround in results and performances, and can you tell us about the expectations?

Nathan Ake: I am not sure about the expectations. But if you compete in a tournament, you want to win it. That is the main objective. We won’t go there to just play. We want to compete and win the tournament. If we manage to win the first game, we can look forward, assess how we played and what we can improve, then grow into the tournament. The coach is very clear on what he wants to do and the way he wants to play. He is very detail-orientated. We changed our formation to a back five, so that influences how we attack and defend. Every player knows his role exactly and that brought us a lot of clarity and comfort in the team. From there we could build. We have a very good young squad, everyone has played together for a while and knows each other well, and that really helps too.

Van Gaal is renowned for placing enormous importance on defensive organisation and resilience. How does he view your role in the team?

The past few games I have played as a left centre-back in a three and it’s been going well. He sees me in this role and, hopefully, I have done enough to keep it for the World Cup. There is a lot of competition in defence. Timber has arrived, a young talent. Then there is De Ligt, De Vrij, Van Dijk, Botman from Newcastle. A lot of talent and top players. It is even more of a good thing if I manage to start in the World Cup. There is an emphasis on defending, for sure. Before the past two games, we conceded quite a few goals. [Van Gaal] said he wasn’t happy with that and we focused more on the defending side and what we could do as a team, how we could be better organised. Straight away we had two clean sheets, against Poland and Belgium. That was a good start – we focused on the issue and it worked. There is still a lot more to do and I am sure we will work on this when we arrive in Qatar.

Playing at a World Cup is an enormously significant episode in the life of a footballer. Reaching this stage requires an awful lot of talent and sacrifice – and people helping you along the way?

From playing for my districts at U-13, then through every Holland age-group from U-15, the ultimate goal was to put on the shirt of the national team. To do that now at the World Cup would be amazing. It has been a long road, never straightforward, with a lot of ups and downs. So many people have helped me: my parents, my brother and my wife They have been through it the whole way. I am just hoping to be able to enjoy many good moments with my mum and brother at the World Cup. My wife is giving birth this weekend, so she can’t be there. I will go away almost immediately [after the birth] and she has to stay here. Normally she travels everywhere to watch me. That will be strange and difficult but it is something we have to deal with.

How will you deal with it?

I think I will be in touch a lot, probably FaceTime every day. It is not easy. I will be with the baby for only three days, then I will have to leave. Her parents will stay here to help with the baby. It is something we have to handle, but I am sure using FaceTime we will manage.

You won the first cap in May 2017. Was there a feeling initially of having to prove yourself to the Dutch fans, given your senior career has unfolded exclusively in England?

I left for England when I was very young, so a lot of people in Holland didn’t really know me back then. It was like – not that I had to prove myself, but I had to show myself to the people and let them know the way I played. But now it is way different. It has been the same for me everywhere, even at Watford (where Ake waited two months for a full Premier League debut after joining on loan for 2015/16). It has taken a bit of time to adjust, for people to get to know me and for me to get to know the team. You learn how to deal with it and not just give up straight away or think you are not good enough. Because of the first experience [with Watford], I saw what could happen if I kept going. In the end, I got there and that made me do the same with the other challenges I had over the years.

You won successive UEFA European U-17 Championships. For the second tournament victory in 2012, you were captain and scored in the final penalty shootout against Germany. Will that experience count for anything in Qatar, and will you be putting up your hand to take a penalty in shootouts?

It is a long time ago and at youth level, which is different, but it helps knowing that feeling of how to win. It was a great experience and something you remember forever. So, imagine how winning the World Cup would stay with you. The penalties – we are really focused on those. The coach is really hammering home the importance of practising at our clubs and trying to be prepared to take a penalty. Everyone is really trying to focus on that and we will see [if I take one] at the World Cup, if the moment comes.

The Netherlands begin against African champions Senegal, who have several top-class players. Then it’s Ecuador, who qualified ahead of Colombia and Chile, and hosts Qatar...

We are expecting three difficult games. The first one is very important, if you win, you have a foundation to grow into the competition. Senegal have quite a few big names: Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Ismaila Sarr. Many good players and a team that is a bit unfamiliar, perhaps, in terms of the way they play, so it will be tough. None of the teams we face are from Europe, so we don’t have as much knowledge about them. But the staff will prepare our tactics and we will be ready and know what to do. You get used to short preparation times for matches because we play so often for our clubs. But we have a bit more than a week to prepare and do our stuff on the training pitch. We will have clips to see how our opponents play and everyone will be able to adjust.

What do you remember about the World Cup growing up and who were the players you admired?

I remember a little of 2006, but 2010 was the first World Cup when I properly watched and understood everything. I was a little bit older, watching the matches rather than playing in between and doing other stuff. At that time, I was playing as a midfielder and when I was younger, I was a striker. I really enjoyed watching [Arjen] Robben because of the way he played. He was one of the main guys in the national team and that tournament was great for him. I looked up to Robben and Wesley Sneijder more than the defenders in the team.

Now it’s your chance you surpass that team from 12 years ago, and the runners-up from 1974 and 1978…

We didn’t qualify in 2018 but feel we are looking good. We are very familiar with the manger and 15 matches unbeaten. We are in a good moment and a good flow, and I think everyone is intrigued to see how we do in the tournament.