Football: Wouters knows he must prove his critics wrong: GROUP F: The Netherlands face a tough test of their temperament. Trevor Haylett talks to their captain about the pressure he is under

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN all those living-rooms where Englishmen and women gather to follow the World Cup party to which their home country was excluded, Jan Wouters will expect and receive no sympathy. The player who is said to have had no small part in the disaster that was England's qualifying campaign, is under pressure here both as an individual and as the captain of a Netherlands side struggling to find their form.

An unimpressive victory over Saudi Arabia prompted the critics to pile in, and many are questioning whether the man whose 34th birthday in three weeks' time coincides with the World Cup final merits a place in the team who face Belgium today in a meeting that should determine who finishes at the head of Group F.

If the Dutch manager Dick Advocaat is found to share the same opinion when he unveils his team at the Orlando Citrus Bowl, then English voices will unite in a chorus of 'it serves you right'. For it was Wouters who is said to have helped render England's quest for USA '94 a forlorn pursuit by removing Paul Gascoigne from the fateful clash between the two countries a year ago last April.

Wouters is trying his hardest to play down the incident. 'It was never my intention to injure Paul,' declared the central statement of the Dutch midfield. 'It is not something you go out deliberately to do, it is something that overcomes you at the time.

'I have tried many times to talk to Gascoigne in Italy. All I got was the answerphone and he did not return my calls. In the end I asked my team-mate in the national side Aron Winter to pass my sentiments on to his Lazio friend. The injury was so unfortunate for England because for the first 20 minutes Gascoigne was the best player on the field. When I next see him I will tell him that in my heart of hearts I did not deliberately hurt him.'

Even though the Dutch made it to America, the same old questions are being asked about their fitness for the challenge.

After they were beaten by the Republic of Ireland last month on home soil, Advocaat's players had signalled their readiness for the campaign, winning three on the spin with 13 goals scored and just two conceded. Talented but temperamental, the Dutch are considered good enough to hold the trophy if they apply their minds to it, but, as history has shown too often, they are susceptible to distractions and internal squabbling which three weeks ago saw Ruud Gullit quit the training camp.

They were lucky to survive against the Saudis and will have to improve substantially if they are not to hand the group advantage to Belgium, who also won their first game - and more impressively than the Dutch. If they do not they will suffer a repeat of the disappointments of four years ago.

'It was a disaster for us in Italy,' Wouters said. 'Most of our players were not fit and were out of form. If everybody is in form we must rank among the favourites to come through.'

After a year in Germany with Bayern Munich, Wouters returned last December to his homeland to join PSV Eindhoven. He owes his illustrious career to his father. The youngest of nine children, he had been advised by a doctor as a small boy that his legs, which were deformed, should be broken so they could grow straight. His father refused but it was due to the comical bow-legged gait that his offspring took some time to be discovered.

He is now one of the older heads of a national squad which gains, he said, inspiration from the influx of new blood. 'They have brought in some fresh air while for the senior players this is our last big event and we are determined to make it a good one. The ones to watch out for are Ronald de Boer - and Bryan Roy. We have always said he was a huge talent. Now is the time for him to prove it.'

(Photograph omitted)