Andries Noppert was an out-of-work second-tier goalkeeper considering a career with the police force just two years ago. Now he is the Netherlands No 1 at the World Cup having turned his career around, but how has he done it? His coaches past and present explain…
Saturday 3 December 2022 15:05, UK
Andries Noppert had a coffee date scheduled with his friend Harmen Kuperus but the goalkeeper was forced to postpone it. "Suddenly he had to go," Kuperus tells Sky Sports. He had a good excuse. He was in the Netherlands squad for the World Cup.
The speed with which Noppert's life has changed is hard for everyone to process. Two weeks ago, he was not guaranteed to be starting. Two months ago, he was not guaranteed to be in the squad. Two years ago, he was not guaranteed to be in football at all.
His is one of the stories of this World Cup. The tallest player at the tournament has also had the most dramatic rise. An out-of-work back-up goalkeeper in the second division who was contemplating a career in the police force has become his country's No 1 at 28.
"Because of what has happened, he is so relaxed," says Kuperus. "Because of his history, not even having a team at one point, it has made him realise that you have to enjoy the good moments. Of course, he is nervous. But he is also enjoying it. That is a good thing."
There is a lot to enjoy. Even the one goal that Noppert has conceded came after a strong save. His surprise selection by Louis van Gaal has been vindicated. Noppert himself has said if this was going to happen under anyone then it would be under Van Gaal.
It is a reminder of the serendipitous nature of this story. Noppert needed a coach brave enough to pick a goalkeeper with fewer than 50 appearances in his decade-long professional career. He needed the right friend in Kuperus too. "I have a special bond with Harmen," Noppert has said. "He gave me the chance."
But that chance came later. Much later. Before all that, it was Kuperus who was the Heerenveen goalkeeper. "At that time, he looked up to me! When I became a coach, I saw him developing himself. We would train together and always analysed his games."
The pair grew up in the same part of the world. They are fellow Frisians. Those folk from the northern part of the Netherlands are a bit different. Just recently, Virgil van Dijk described Noppert as a 'real Frisian'. Louis van Gaal sees him as a kindred spirit. That is a clue.
"People in the north are direct," says Kuperus. "We say what we think. We do not think, 'Oh, maybe this person can't handle this.' We just say it. Even when I spoke to Andries after the Ecuador game, the first thing I said to him was, 'Hey, you were lucky, man.'"
There are times when that direct approach must have made it difficult because the path here has not been straightforward. Noppert did not make the breakthrough at Heerenveen first time around and starting out with NAC Breda was a tough introduction.
He played only six league games in his four years there and has since said that results were so bad that it was not safe for the players to walk down the street. He went to Italy to play for Foggia but financial difficulties saw them relegated to Serie D. And it got worse.
It was his departure from Dordrecht that marked the nadir. Back from Foggia and looking for a fresh start, he found opportunity but injury found him. Misfortune dogged his time at Dordrecht but goalkeeper coach Arben Kasolli insists his potential was spotted.
"Immediately, after the first training session, I said that I wanted him as the new number one," Kasolli tells Sky Sports. "After three days, he was in goal and we won against a strong NEC Nijmegen team. Andries was named as the best goalkeeper of the week."
His second and final appearance for Dordrecht, his final senior appearance for 16 months, came the very next week against Almere City. "Andries tore a muscle in his upper leg. He had not played much." Injuries changed the mood. Patience dwindled.
"After a month, Andries started training again but injured his knee again. After a week of rehabilitation, he was injured again, same knee and same problem. I told him and the medical staff that he had to have surgery and try to be ready for the new season.
"After the surgery, he asked me if I could help him get fit again and I did that for two training sessions but after that Andries was not allowed to train with us anymore. Under the new coach, who was also the technical director, he was not welcome.
"We had a lot of conversations as a staff, but they always said, 'No, Arben, we don't want him.' For the first time in my career, I had a coach who did not listen to me. So, Andries went looking for another club. I spoke up for him in Italy. There was no interest."
In early 2021, Kuperus was goalkeeper coach at Go Ahead Eagles.
It was time to intervene.
"He had been so unlucky with injuries and stuff like that. I had always told him that if I had the chance to help him somewhere and if he kept working hard and kept pushing himself then I would help him. A few years ago I had the chance to do it.
"He was still injured but I knew that with his mentality that would not be a problem so I lied to my coach a little bit. I said he was fit when he wasn't. He and I had a good relationship so he said that if I said he was a good goalkeeper then we could get him, so we did.
"I knew that he had the right mentality, the most important quality in a goalkeeper. Combine that with his height and his speed and it is incredible actually. But you need the chance to play games. The coach Kees van Wonderen gave him that chance."
Van Wonderen, then the Go Ahead Eagles head coach and the man who has since taken Noppert with him back to Heerenveen, remembers that conversation with Kuperus.
"He came to me with the name," he tells Sky Sports. "He said that he needed quite a bit of work, because he was coming off an injury, that he needed rhythm and we had to work with him, but if we found the right buttons, he could be an interesting goalkeeper for us."
What both Van Wonderen and Kuperus discovered was that the biggest barrier preventing Noppert from making that final step was psychological rather than physical or technical. "He looked like he was satisfied to be the second goalkeeper," says Van Wonderen.
"He was not knocking on the door like, 'Hey, here I am, I want to be first goalie'. He is a nice guy. He is very balanced and normal. But you want players to be competitive with each other and knock on the door and want to be better every day.
"We said that to him and then you saw the development. He started making steps. From there, he was really knocking on the door and his moment came. He got his chance to be first goalie and from then on he played and he showed what his abilities are."
"We believed in him but we didn't think he believed in himself. Actually, he did. But he did not act like it. It is difficult to explain but coaches want to see that. It is body language. It is talking. It is everything. He was not showing that he would do whatever it takes."
Maybe Noppert needed to hit rock bottom.
That had come months earlier when his own family were telling him that it might be time to do something else. "That was the moment that he decided to give it one more go and give it more than 100 per cent. He did more strength training, more dietary work."
There have been other improvements since then.
"His biggest problem was that a few years ago he wanted to go for every high ball. In his head he was thinking that if the ball is high then I go. He was constantly busy doing the things in front of his goal and suddenly there was a shot and he was not ready.
"We brought him back to being a good goalkeeper on the line because with his reach it is going to be a hell of a shot to score. If the ball comes behind the defence and you are sure you can reach it, then you go. Saving shots is the main course. He is steady now."
His boss at Heerenveen has benefited from that. He has also heard the stories of how close Noppert was to walking away from the game. He believes there is a lesson in that. "It proves even more that you have to keep on fighting," says Van Wonderen.
"Sometimes it come to a point when your surroundings tell you maybe it's better to do something else, but then it comes down to yourself, to say no, I'm staying doing what I'm doing. That's what Andries did. He had the drive to get the maximum out of himself."
Stage: Round of 16
Venue: Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan
Time: 3pm on Saturday
At Heerenveen, the staff are gathering at the club to watch the matches together, to support their goalkeeper. "It means a lot for this region, for the club, for everyone who has contributed to the club." That feeling extends beyond Heerenveen, beyond Friesland.
"When I heard that Andries was starting, that was a huge source of happiness and pride," says Kasolli, his old coach at Dordrecht. "It is too bad that clubs are now finding out what I warned them - that they could earn a lot of money by investing in this goalkeeper."
His old friend Harmen Kuperus is still in touch, of course.
"We always have a little bit of contact after a game. Not too much because it is his success and I am only a really small part of it. But it is incredible. It has come late but he has always been a good goalkeeper. Sometimes you just that bit of luck to get your chance."
As for that coffee, Kuperus is in no rush.
"He told me the other day, 'That coffee, we should go sometime soon.' I said that we should wait for a few weeks.
"Stay there as long as possible."