Few can ever begin to imagine the thoughts racing through Virgil van Dijk's mind when it was his turn to lift the Premier League trophy a few weeks ago.
Surrounded by the tight-knit band of team-mates he had just led into battle against Chelsea and watched on by an immeasurable awestruck TV audience, the Dutchman embarked on the crowning moment of a career that never seemed likely.
He's now the best central defender on the planet, a champion of the Premier League, Europe and the world all at once. Yet just eight years ago, the prospect of ever playing football again looked a distant ambition, as he lay on a hospital bed within inches of his life.
The manner in which his first full season as a pro ended was harrowing. Understandably, it's something he hasn't often discussed since, as struck down with appendicitis, peritonitis and a kidney infection, he was forced to undergo life-saving surgery, before which he signed a last will and testament in preparation for the worst case scenario.
“I still remember lying in that bed,” he recalled at the time, per Four Four Two. “The only thing I could see were tubes dangling out from me.
Unsung youngster to ??@OnsOranje captain & UCL champion ?— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) August 27, 2019
?Didn't get a look in at his first club
?Overcame life-threatening appendicitis
?Overlooked by top @eredivisie sides#TheBest FIFA Men's Player nominee @VirgilvDijk had to carve his own path to the top of the game ?
“My body was broken and I couldn’t do anything. At such a moment, the worst scenarios are whizzing around your head. For the first time in my life, football was very much a side issue. My life was at risk.
“My mum and I prayed to God and discussed possible scenarios. At some point I had to sign some papers. It was a kind of testament. If I died, a part of my money would go to my mum.
“Of course, nobody wanted to talk about it, but we had to do that. It could have been over.”
Van Dijk, whose shirt reads 'Virgil' as a result of an ongoing dispute with his father, had suffered more trauma and tribulation by his 21st birthday than most of us will in a lifetime.
It was against all odds that he bounced back to make such a lasting impact on the sport that comes so naturally to him, but defying odds has been a recurring theme throughout his career. When he signed for Liverpool for £75m, there were major doubts over whether he was worth the investment, just as there had been doubts about his ability to go professional at all as he approached his 18th birthday.
“Now and then he could come across as a bit too easy-going,” said Jan van Loon, the head of youth who was responsible for assessing a young Van Dijk at Willem II. “At times some youth coaches even thought of him as lazy.”
Willem's hesitance to offer him professional terms was to Groningen's benefit. In 2010, he made the three-hour trip north to link up with a team pinning their Eredivisie hopes on Dusan Tadic - a future Southampton team-mate of Virgil's - and it would eventually prove to be a match made in heaven.
Virgil van Dijk's senior career path:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 3, 2019
?? Groningen (free)
??????? Celtic (£2.6m)
??????? Southampton (£13m)
??????? Liverpool (£75m)
It all started at Groningen. pic.twitter.com/Xu97HVXzWS
Save for a two-goal showing in a Europa League playoff tie with Den Hag, appearances would initially be hard to come by for the gangly, hairband-sporting defender. Having initially been deployed as an auxiliary striker, however, 2011/12 would see him given a chance in his natural position, and former team-mate Tim Sparv remembers his sudden impact.
“I think we had Feyenoord at home, we won 6-1 or something [it was actually 6-0], and in the first or second minute, he hit the ball from the centre of defence out on the half-volley to the left winger with perfect technique," he said in 2017, per Planet Football.
“He didn’t even think about it, he just did it, and that was a moment for me when I knew he was set for great things.”
The incident Sparv recalls saw Van Dijk register the first assist of his career, picking out Tadic with his trademark precision, giving the Serbian the platform to weave in-field and open the scoring.
Here's Van Dijk in a giant pair of green clogs during his time at Groningen - Enjoy ? pic.twitter.com/Pg9EKqIZNg— Empire of the Kop (@empireofthekop) March 28, 2018
It was one glimpse of his brilliance, and defender Sparv was graced with another shortly before full-time. With the score at 4-0, the pressure may have been off, but he would have been astounded nonetheless when Van Dijk took a square pass 30 yards from goal, and thundered an effort into the top corner.
It might have been the most simple assist of Sparv's career, and was a clear sign Van Dijk - now seven games in to his first run of starts - was finally playing with the confidence of an established pro.
To this day Van Dijk is renowned for his relaxed, laid back playing style. Current Liverpool team-mates Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have poked fun at how he 'strolls' through games, and his signature economy of movement - underpinned by a frightening pace when he does turn on the afterburners - has been catching eyes since day one.
Klopp on @VirgilvDijk: "He's a good centre-half! His combination of skills is special. This mix makes him pretty good. We try to rest him but it's difficult. He takes his breaks during games!"— James Pearce (@JamesPearceLFC) July 26, 2020
Sparv, now 33 and playing for FC Midtjylland, went on: “As a person he was calm and laid back but very confident. If you didn’t know him you could maybe get the sense he was arrogant. I think he was just a very, very laid-back person.
“Defensively he was very strong, he would win 90 per cent of his headers. He was also quite quick so even if he made a slight mistake, he could just use his speed to cover himself.
“Maybe at times it was just a little too easy for him, so maybe he didn’t need to do anything extra. He understood that he had to make some sacrifices and do the extra work, as it won’t be that easy in the future if he wants to make it at a higher level.”
Between being thrown in against Herenveen on matchday five all the way through until his tragic triple diagnosis in March, Van Dijk started every game in every competition for Groningen, showcasing the first signs of the longevity that his relentless attitude and efficient style of play is capable of yielding. It's something Liverpool are seeing now as he hits his prime - he didn't miss a minute of last season's historic Premier League campaign.
Manchester United's Andreas Pereira recently hinted at an 'arrogance' to his play, but any aspersions cast over his personality can be easily dismissed. His experiences in the fledgling days of his career have installed a lasting humility in the big Dutchman, who just bought four season tickets at Groningen to help out the club whose faith set him on a path of dominance.
From death's door to champion of everything in less than a decade; the Jamie Vardy movie looks like an episode of River City in comparison to the career of Big Virg.
Source : 90min