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Netherlands

Brazil's dubious distinction

Five Aside
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 By Elko Born

Van Persie's importance to Oranje

Fans held their breath as Robin van Persie was substituted during the Netherlands' latest friendly against Wales. Walking away from the pitch, the striker looked like he was in pain. Could it be that the injury-prone Van Persie had once again suffered a serious setback?

It quickly transpired that Van Persie was fine and that his substitution had merely been precautionary. As it turned out, the short panic had been unnecessary but was telling all the same. The sense of fear gripping the nation after seeing a man walking with a slight limp demonstrated that Van Persie will go into the World Cup as the Netherlands' absolute superstar despite all that has happened in the past year.

The special status assigned to Van Persie comes despite the disastrous season he had at his club Manchester United, where he struggled with injuries and saw his team crumble under the leadership of failing manager David Moyes, all after a season in which Van Persie had finally won the Premier League title he had so desired.

The season before Moyes started his short stint also saw Van Persie become the leading scorer in England. Back then, it looked as if things couldn't get better. After continuously missing out on all the prizes with Arsenal, the striker had finally reached the top of world football -- and it looked like he was there to stay.

In contrast, things looked like they couldn't get any worse for him this year. With his former Arsenal teammates finishing higher in the league than United, there wasn't just criticism; there was outright ridicule.

Sure, the injuries didn't help. Neither did the all-purveying negative atmosphere around Old Trafford. But in hindsight it's also possible to conclude that Van Persie missed the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson, the man he had turned to for help in his quest for silverware.

Where Ferguson had shown leadership, Moyes had shown insecurity. Where Ferguson had demanded everything, Moyes didn't know what to ask for. In short, Moyes seemed the antithesis to what Van Persie had signed up for. No wonder he started sulking when things were getting particularly bad for United halfway through the season.

So why are things different with the Oranje? Why is he still scoring goal after goal for the national team? Why in almost every match Netherlands play is Van Persie one of the best players on the pitch?

Perhaps it's because there's no disaster unfolding at Oranje, and perhaps it's because the type of leadership being shown by manager Louis van Gaal works perfectly with the striker.

Like Ferguson, Van Gaal is often seen as a father figure to his players. In part, this has to do with his impressive CV. Having managed clubs like Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the coach is no newcomer. But more importantly in all this is his consistency. While he's often in conflict with the media and the world surrounding his squad, Van Gaal is 100 percent loyal to players who have shown they are eager to learn and move forward.

Somehow, Van Gaal has managed to give Van Persie what he didn't get at Manchester United. More than with Moyes, the striker feels at home when he's playing for his country. A player of such level needs comfort rather than training, and that might be half the battle.

Despite all the turbulence in England, the Netherlands will rely on their star man in Brazil. Thanks to his manager, this is a role he is comfortable with. That's why the fans adore him.

What will happen after the World Cup, when Van Gaal officially takes over from Moyes at Manchester United? Only the future will tell. For now, though, it's safe to say Van Persie will probably get along with his new manager just fine.