RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A player has to perform very, very well for Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal to single him out for praise. His stock answer is that the team is more important than any individual player.
Take a bow, Nigel de Jong.
"I never like to put individual players in the spotlight," Van Gaal said after his team battled to a 3-2 win over Australia in Group B and a place in the World Cup round of 16. "But the way Nigel de Jong led from the front was imposing."
De Jong sat out training Thursday in Rio, a day after dominating the Dutch midfield, never taking a backward step as Australians desperate for a victory to keep their World Cup alive flew into tackles.
It was the kind of hard-hitting match the 29-year-old AC Milan midfielder relishes.
"Great determination showed by the team yesterday," he tweeted. "Compliments for Australia showing great passion as well."
Before his standout performance in Porto Alegre, De Jong was perhaps best known at the World Cup for his chest-high tackle on Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso in the 2010 final. De Jong was booked for the challenge and referee Howard Webb later said he should have shown him a red card instead.
Later in the same year, De Jong was dropped from the Dutch team after he was involved in a tackle that left Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa with a broken left leg.
Bert van Marwijk said he saw "no alternative" but to drop De Jong from his squad.
Van Marwijk told a Dutch newspaper at the time that the tackle on Ben Arfa was "unnecessary and wild," adding that he had "a problem with the way Nigel needlessly looks to push the limit."
Despite such criticism, De Jong has hardly toned down his style.
"Sometimes you have to show your teeth," he told Dutch website Nu.nl. "In the first half we were sometimes too nice. They were flying in and charging for every loose ball. Some of our players need to learn to do that too — show that you're there."
He particularly enjoyed his tussles with the equally physical Tim Cahill, a familiar face from the period in De Jong's career when he played for Manchester City and the Australian was at Everton.
"I like that clash of bodies, the 50-50 duels," he said. "The way Cahill played, with so much passion for his country is fantastic."
De Jong is no longer just a midfield enforcer. The veteran of 73 internationals is also a leader, one of the old guard in a Dutch team whose inexperienced defense sometimes needs guidance.
"My role in the team is also to make sure the boys understand in the last 20 minutes that it's a World Cup they're playing in," De Jong told Dutch broadcaster NOS after the match. "If you don't get that, you can lose."