Maradona rather than Cruyff is the idol behind Van Persie's ambition
As a football devotee, Robin van Persie can tell you the exact moment when, as a child, he fell under the spell of the game. It was when he watched the footage of Diego Maradona lifting the World Cup in 1986, and on Tuesday night he sounded like a man who could scarcely believe that he was one game away from doing the same himself.
The Arsenal striker has not performed in this World Cup as he would have wanted but the significance of Holland's place in the final on Sunday is not lost on a man who regards himself as a World Cup obsessive. He was too young to watch the 1986 finals at the time – the first tournament he remembers watching live is 1994 – but the footage of that World Cup final 24 years ago has had a profound effect.
"As soon as I saw the video when I was a boy of Maradona lifting the trophy and crying I was hooked," Van Persie said. "I can't tell you how many times I have watched that clip. I have always wanted to play in a final, since I was a kid. It means more than anything. Of course I have watched the two Dutch finals, too. I know our history in this competition.
"I have a really big picture of Maradona on the wall at home in my games room. It is an unbelievable picture of him holding the World Cup. He is on his team-mates' shoulders and he is holding it with passion. If we win I want that picture with me holding the World Cup and hopefully scoring in the World Cup final."
Still playing his way back from injury, it has been a struggle at times for Van Persie to find his form in this tournament. He has not been helped by the more selfish instincts of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to shoot on sight, not to mention Dirk Kuyt's head-down tendency. But despite the Dutch team's tradition for disharmony, and Van Persie's difficult relationship with Sneijder, they have kept it together this summer.
"I don't know [what it was like in former Dutch squads] because I was not there, but what I know about this team is that [the spirit] is unbelievable," Van Persie said. "If you were to put a camera inside our hotel you would see us playing table tennis, making jokes, playing cards.
"Everybody is talking to each other, which is important in order to achieve things. When you have a group of players where half of the team is not talking to the other half – where, 'he does not like him' or one player is not happy when another scores – you are not going anywhere.
"It is a bit difficult because you have to fight against the generation [that reached the final in] 1974 and 1978. They were unbelievable. There were such great players and they did not do it somehow, and we have a chance to do it. If we win it for the first time basically it means that we have done better than them.
"They are legends, [Johan] Cruyff, [Johan] Neeskens, [Wim] Jansen. You grew up with their names in your face. When those people say anything in the press or on a TV programme everybody listens because of what they have achieved. Maybe you guys [in the press] will listen to me in the future."
Van Persie's season has come a long way from November when he badly injured his ankle ligaments playing for Holland in a friendly against Italy. Arsène Wenger was enraged and understandably so – the loss of Van Persie for five months contributed significantly to the derailing of Arsenal's title push. Van Persie went to seek treatment – in vain as it turned out – from the Serbian "horse placenta healer" Marijana Kovacevic.
It is evident in the way that Van Persie is still searching for his pre-November form that Giorgio Chiellini's late challenge turned his season upside down. In South Africa he has not influenced games as he can at his best but nevertheless he is doing an effective job as a centre-forward.
He acknowledged as much when he said "everybody was sad for me that I did not score" in the 3-2 win over Uruguay, adding that he felt the semi-final had been his best game in a tournament in which he had scored only once. "It is a strange feeling [to be in the final]," he said. "It does not seem real. It has not sunk in. I am used to watching other teams in the final. But now we are right in it, right in the middle and it is fantastic feeling.
"I spoke to two friends of mine in Rotterdam and they said, 'Man, you just don't understand what it is like in here. Holland is just upside down. It is unbelievable. Everybody is drinking, having fun, swimming in the canals. It is crazy. Everyone is so happy.' That is what is really nice. With the game we all love we can make people so happy. It is just for us to push on one more time."
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