Ron Vlaar: I never wanted to be a Koeman or de Boer

Ron Vlaar remembers the Netherlands being knocked out of USA 94 by Brazil as he sat on the sofa.

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Celebrating his only international goal to date for Holland during their 6-0 rout of Northern Ireland in 2012. The Dutch will take on Spain, Chile and Australia during the group stage of this summer’s World Cup

“I watched it at home with my parents and sisters and I can see myself sitting on the couch,” says the Villa captain.

“It was my first memory of the World Cup – the quarter-final against Brazil. We were 2-0 down and we came back to 2-2 but Branco scored a free-kick to win the game.

“That was a big disappointment, but there weren’t any tears.

“Growing up it was great to watch the European Championships and World Cups when everything in the streets was orange. It was crazy and when you grow up and you’re 17 or 18 and can watch the games in the bar it made it even better.”

Most will remember that Brazil game for Bebeto’s famed ‘rock the baby’ celebration when the striker scored and produced a tribute to his son, Mattheus, who was born two days before.

Not that the Dutch cared, and a nine-year-old Vlaar was too young to grasp the magnitude of a World Cup exit. That will be different this year.

The defender is perched on a bench in the Villa Park tunnel, it is familiar surroundings but a departure from what will be a World Cup debut this summer.

He is expected to be named in Louis van Gaal’s final

23-man squad to end his eight-year wait to play in the biggest tournament of them all.

It has been a long time coming after missing the cut in 2006 and 2010.

Two years of injury hell – including a cruciate knee ligament problem – scuppered his 2010 dream, while 2006 came too soon after he made his debut in game against the Czech Republic in October 2005.

Both times Vlaar made the provisional squad, coming agonisingly close, yet failure this year is not an option.

“I didn’t go to South Africa and I was also in the provisional selection for 2006 but I don’t know…,” he trails off. “…I wasn’t good enough then. And in 2010 my body was empty at the end of the season.

“I came back after not playing for two seasons and I struggled with fitness at the end. My calf and my hamstrings were done.

“Looking back it was not a strange thing to happen. The battery had gone in my body and I wasn’t ready for South Africa, I needed to reload. Back then I realised just making the (provisional) squad was enough.

“In 2010 I could live with it. It had taken me a long time to get just to that point.

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Waving farewell to the fans at the end of a disappointing season for Villa

“You want to go further and you want to go to the next level every time and you have to do the right things to do that, but it doesn’t happen by itself.

“If you offered it to me now though I would never accept it because it’s not in my mind not to be there.

“In 2009 I came back after two years and I played well and they talked about playing for the national team again. I thought ‘Oh my God, it’s unbelievable’ because I wasn’t thinking about the national team, I was just thinking about coming back to play football. I just wanted to get back to a good level and play professional football again.

“It all happened so fast but it made me really proud and left me thinking ‘OK, I can come back at a good level, let’s see where it ends’.

“But some things have changed in my mind now and hopefully that’ll help this summer.”

Vlaar’s admission he wasn’t ready for either tournament is a refreshingly honest take in a sport which often has a climate of self-indulgence and arrogance.

It’s why the Oranje’s exit from the Euro 2012 group stages – four years after reaching the World Cup final – hurt so much.

His first and only major international tournament to date ended in utter disaster.

It was the first time in 20 years the Netherlands had lost three games in a row – to Denmark, Portugal and Germany – with rumours rife of dressing room unrest.

There is no hiding the frustration Vlaar felt after they left pointless and embarrassed.

He said: “What changed for me was, for the first few years after my injury, I was just happy back playing and accepted that ‘OK, yeah, I can play again’ but after that you want to win every game.

“You want to be better every day. Failing is not an option any more. That’s what’s changed – you move on, next step.

“So when were out after the group stage it was really disappointing. That season was good for me with Feyenoord.

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A fantastic free-kick from Branco for Brazil to knock out Holland at the 1994 World Cup and right, Vlaar at Villa Park where he has established himself as skipper and a firm favourite among supporters

“I was pretty new in the squad, I’d played before but the team was pretty much the same from the 2010 side in South Africa.

“I’d fought my way back into the team after injuries and was proud I’d made it, but the results weren’t good.

“I don’t know what happened, I was just focusing on myself and trying to work hard. I was happy to be in the squad but the next thing was ‘I want to play’. Now I’m thinking about the team more.

“It’s different from 2012, the spirit is better now. It’s easy to say afterwards but a lot of things went wrong in 2012, we all learnt rom that and accepted things and moved forward.”

Vlaar believes they are stronger after their problems in Poland and Ukraine following an unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign.

The Dutch face Spain in their opening Group B game on June 13 in Salvador before playing Chile and Australia.

Few are expecting them to challenge, with the added distraction of manager van Gaal’s exit to Manchester United after the competition.

To underline their underdog tag they are 15th in FIFA’s world rankings – behind the USA, Greece and Chile – but Vlaar knows what awaits.

“It’s an exciting group, a tough group,” says Vlaar, who has 22 caps and one goal, which came in a 6-0 rout of Northern Ireland in 2012.

“We just have to perform and have to play well as a team. There are countries with better individual players but the team, the group, makes you strong.

“Nobody sees us as a favourite and that’s no problem. Others have better individual players but players can’t win championships – teams can.

“I believe we can do good things. The summer is always on your mind.

Aston Villa's Ron Vlaar

“All I could do last season was play well with the club, it has to do with each other. I have to be fit and work hard and play well.

“I don’t know what everyone expects and it doesn’t really matter to me. We’ll go from game to game and we start against Spain. You know what to expect against them and we’ll go from there. I want to do everything better for the team – do what can help them. Before, I was focusing on myself and that itself was a bit of experience.

“This season was better than last year for my personal performance and I’m happy with that, but I always try to look for the next level.

“You can be happy with the game but things can always be better.”

Brazil will be the culmination of an eight-year battle, but it is one Vlaar never dreamt of as a kid, even from the sofa.

There were never any heroes. A young Vlaar was never out on the field imitating Ronald Koeman or Frank de Boer.

A fan? Yes. A hero worshipper? No. There was too much freedom in football for the 29-year-old to enjoy back then before everything became serious.

“I never really wanted to be anyone, I just wanted to play football because I liked it,” he recalls.

“In 1994 Koeman played but I wasn’t even a defender back then and I didn’t look at the games like that.

“I just liked to play football every day and being myself.

“I was 12 when I went to AZ Alkmaar and in the first year I played every position on the pitch except goalie.

“The next year they told me I had to focus on one position and try to develop there, that was in defence.

“I was pretty tall for my age so it was my position but then everything went so fast from then.

“I’d only played a few games in the Dutch league before I got selected for the national squad and it was a total surprise.

“I was called up for a game against Romania but didn’t play until my debut in October 2005, the game we qualified for the World Cup in Germany.

“It was a great game to come on and we beat the Czech Republic 2-0. I’ll never forget it.

“I couldn’t take it in though. That year I made my debut and played in the semi-final of the Europa League so there was no time to think.

“It was happening all so fast, it was just unbelievable.

“It made me proud and I was thinking about my parents because they have been so important for me and they should be so proud, also my sisters, and the first thing I did was to give them a call.” Even now, his rapid rise is something which clearly still surprises Vlaar.

He had only played a handful of games for AZ after making his Eredivisie debut at 20 and playing under van Gaal at the AFAS Stadion before his Oranje debut.

He grew up in Hensbroek, which had a population of less than 1,000 when Vlaar was a boy, with father Peter, mother Margaret and sisters Ellen and Lisan.

And Peter is a clear inspiration to Vlaar – it’s his middle name – and he regularly watched his dad play in the Hoofdklasse and Erste Klasse – the fourth and fifth tiers of the Dutch amateur league.

“It was always fun to watch him and I’m very similar to him,” says the former Feyenoord man.

“If you want to do something, you want to do it really well so he was really enthusiastic and he really went for it when I saw him.

“He was a real winner and that inspired me.

“He was a striker and he scored pretty easily.

“While he was an amateur everyone is a professional at their own level, it just depends what you do and how you love your sport.

“It can be the same at every level, you want to win your game and you want to be better than your opponent every game, it’s always the same.

“I watched him a lot but I was always busy with the ball, kicking it on the sides.”

Vlaar admits he gets his focus from his parents.

He’s softly-spoken and considered, traits needed after Villa’s desperate season which left them too close comfort in the Premier League survival battle.

Boss Paul Lambert has described him as an ideal leader and it is easy to see why he would be a calming influence during the chaos which enveloped the claret and blues’ season. Vlaar could return from the World Cup with the club under new ownership after Randy Lerner announced he was putting up the ‘for sale’ signs.

And with his contract expiring at the end of next season, the inevitable speculation over his own personal future will follow.

Those complications are not something Vlaar envisaged during the days when his biggest worry was achieving good grades rather than winning the World Cup.

“When I was at a professional club I still just wanted to have fun, but school was really important and I tried to do my best,” said the centre-back, who joined local club Apollo ‘68 when he was six.

“I wanted to improve and do the things which were right for school and football.

“Then, when I was 16 or 17 and started training with the first team and playing in the reserves, I started realising this is what I really wanted.

“AZ were really strict on homework though, it was really important.

“They said it was more important to finish school well and they told us sometimes that if we didn’t do our work properly then we wouldn’t train. We all knew what we had to do.

“It wasn’t easy for me at secondary school but I made it, I had to work really hard for that and I was really happy to have my diploma.

“What was my best subject? Sport, of course – I always liked that, I’m really competitive.

“That might come a little bit from my parents. The most important thing for them was, if you do something do it right and go for it.

“That’s still on my mind – you have to enjoy the things you do.

“If you don’t then you have to stop and do something else.

“But I couldn’t stop half way through. For example, if I didn’t like to play football and I started the season I still had to finish it. That didn’t happen but it’s just how they raised us.

“I’m really happy with that because it’s easy to stop and try something else. It’s not how it works in life.

“I’m from a small village and everywhere it was the same, but my dad was a little bit more passionate and he would talk about football a lot.

“It was important and it still is. If I have to lose some frustration after a bad game I know I can always talk to him about it.”

And this summer Vlaar Snr will be back on the sofa, hoping that call from Brazil doesn’t come.