Netherlands captain Stijn Schaars may not have the high profile of some of his Jongoranje team-mates but those in the know are well aware of his importance.
"A new Cocu - I hope that's his future," said coach Foppe de Haan of his midfield general, who could have as much of a say in whether the Dutch live up to pre-tournament expectation as Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Romeo Castelen, the exciting young forwards who just missed out on this summer's FIFA World Cup. Schaars himself believes the talented duo will be able to profit in Portugal, adding: "We have the team to make chances for them."
Like the PSV Eindhoven and Netherlands mainstay Phillip Cocu, Schaars is the man who makes his side tick, patrolling the midfield and possessing the ability to turn defence into attack with either a well-timed tackle or a superbly-judged pass. He caused some concern over the weekend, having picked up a troublesome hamstring injury in last Wednesday's 2-2 friendly draw with Germany, but after undergoing an individual training programme, he returned to full practice in the two days before the meeting with Ukraine in Agueda tonight.
"I am ready to play," said Schaars, who said his colleagues were united and all eager to win the competition. "We are very hungry and I think a lot of our players are now playing regularly for their clubs at the highest level." Schaars is certainly doing that, having helped AZ Alkmaar to runners-up spot in the 2005/06 Eredivisie, although they were denied UEFA Champions League qualification in the four-team domestic play-offs.
It was his first season at AZ, having joined on a four-year contract last summer following an impressive rise through the BV Vitesse ranks. He played ten times in the Netherlands' preliminaries for these finals and is happy to lead from the front for the national side. "It is a big honour to be captain of course," he said. "I think we have a great team. We are all the same age and have spent maybe four or five years together.
"I think it will be a good tournament," the 22-year-old continued. "Portugal is a nice country, the stadiums are good, the food is great." Such a well-considered message in praise of the championship underlines why Schaars is De Haan's preferred choice to wear the armband, although the former SC Heerenveen coach was in playful mood when asked to explain his captain's qualities on the pitch.
"He is not fast and he can't head the ball," said De Haan, with a smile on his face, before slipping back into serious mode. "He is good on the ball, he can read the game and he played very well last season. He has a very good attitude and knows what is happening on the field. He is a real winner." The 'new Cocu' looks set to go far.
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