Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk has been praised for his display of compassion to grieving referee Ovidiu Hategan in the aftermath of his last-gasp equalizer against Germany.
The Romanian official’s mother had recently passed away but the 38-year-old decided to still take charge of the crucial Nations League clash.
“That man broke down, stood with tears in his eyes because he had just lost his mother,” Van Dijk said after the match.
“I wished him strength and said he had refereed well. It’s a small thing, but I hope it helped him.”
Hategan, who has refereed in this season’s Champions Legue, was visibly moved following the full time whistle, wiping away tears after speaking with Van Dijk.
The Netherlands booked its place in the Nations League final four with a sensational, come-from-behind 2-2 draw with Germany on Monday night, rounding out the list of finalists for the inaugural edition of the tournament.
Holland will join host Portugal, World Cup semifinalist England and Switzerland in the four-team mini-tournament next June, after an injury-time volley from Virgil van Dijk evened the score at the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen.
The Dutch trailed against their biggest rivals for the vast majority of the match following an early goal from Timo Lerner just before the 10-minute mark, before Leroy Sane doubled the Germans’ lead.
It wasn’t until the 85th minute that the Oranje found the net through Quincy Promes. With coach Ronald Koeman having nothing to lose, he then dramatically shifted the team’s shape to move Liverpool defender Van Dijk up front as an auxiliary striker, as the final seconds of regulation time ticked down.
The move proved to be a canny one, with Van Dijk only taking minutes to change the team’s fortunes with the last-gasp equalizer, volleying home from a Tonny Vilhena cross.
“When we were 2-0 down (Holland assistant coaches Dwight Lodeweges and Kees van Wonderen) asked me if we should change things around and I said yes,” Koeman said.
“In the end it’s fantastic that the equalizer came from the guy who was told on the note to push up front.”
The result, which sees Germany demoted to League B for next season, cast a pall over legend Thomas Muller’s 100th cap.
Upping the game
The Dutch side, which had been underperforming for several years and missed the summer’s World Cup jamboree in Russia, came into Group A1 as heavy underdogs, facing France and Germany, the winners of the last two World Cups.
“It’s a fantastic feeling. I think we should be all proud of ourselves – I’m certainly very proud of my team,” Van Dijk, the Holland captain said after the match.
“We worked very hard today, we struggled at times and they did very well, so we are obviously very happy that we finished first in the group, and that we’re going to play the final four games of the Nations League and I think it’s just a great feeling for all of us,” added Van Dijk.
“We worked so hard for every game and to get rewards for that is fantastic.”
Although late in coming, goals were always on the cards for the Netherlands, the team having only failed to score in one of its last 15 matches – and the Dutch have only lost two of those.
The table-topping point means that the Dutch team will be booking tickets to Portugal next summer, meeting the three other top-ranked League A teams. The semi-finals of the knockout competition take place on June 5 and 6, with the third-place playoff and final taking place on June 9.
The winning team will take home a new, 71cm-tall (28 in) sterling silver trophy and a €7.5 million ($8.6 million) check.
On Sunday, losing World Cup semifinalist England took some measure of revenge against Croatia with a 2-1 win against the team that dumped it out of this year’s tournament in Russia, thanks to a 85th-minute Harry Kane goal.
Switzerland also secured its place at the finals with a 5-2 drubbing of Belgium to join European champion Portugal, which qualified thanks to a 0-0 draw with Italy to top group A3.
The draw for the Nations League Finals takes place in Dublin on December 3.
Ups and downs
Elsewhere in the tournament, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark and Ukraine all secured promotion to League A, Finland and Norway will move up from League C to B, and Belarus, Georgia and FYR Macedonia are promoted from League D to C.
Heading the other way, Croatia, Germany, Iceland and Poland all step down a rung from League A to B, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Turkey all drop down from League B to C, while Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia all drop to League D, the lowest tier, from League C.
Russia can still gain promotion to League A with a win or a draw over Sweden on Tuesday. Sweden would take the promotion slot if it wins.
Israel and Scotland will go head to head to attempt promotion to League B, with the Scots needing a win at home to go up, while Israel can settle for a draw and a point.
Romania are also chasing promotion to League C against Montenegro on Tuesday, as are Serbia, which will enter League B with a win or if Romania fail to beat Montenegro.
Kosovo can win promotion to League C with a point against Azerbaijan, while Cyprus and Montenegro can still be relegated to League D, dependent on results Tuesday.