uefa.com watches Feyenoord striker Pierre van Hooijdonk in training ahead of the UEFA Cup final.
Pierre van Hooijdonk may be 32 but he is not too old to keep on honing his free-kick skills.
Practice makes perfect
"I am practising every day," the Dutch international striker said on the eve of the biggest game of his career. It has more than paid off this season, with Van Hooijdonk's dead-ball precision a major factor in Feyenoord's march to the UEFA Cup final. The former NAC Breda, Celtic FC, Nottingham Forest FC, SBV Vitesse and SL Benfica forward has hit six goals in the competition to be the joint top-scorer, including some vital free-kicks in tight matches against SC Freiburg and Rangers FC.
"As a player for Feyenoord reaching the final of the UEFA Cup is really special and everybody realises that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win a European tournament," he told uefa.com last week. "We are a big club in Holland, but because of the financial situation in football we are not a big club in Europe. We can't compete with teams like [FC] Barcelona, Real Madrid [CF] and Manchester United [FC]. And when you reach the final by beating teams with so much more financial power it is even sweeter."
Not surprisingly, given his set-piece expertise, Van Hooijdonk spent a large part of today's open training session at the Feijenoord stadium trying to lift the ball over a dummy wall and into the corner of the goal. He started brightly, finding the net straight away. Perhaps he should have stopped there. The next effort smacked the middle of the wall, followed by a shot that went high and wide. A succession of missed chances later, an shot that rammed the wall resulted in the big Dutchman kicking the ball away in disgust.
He walked off towards the tunnel, the training session seemingly over. But someone kicked a ball towards him and before disappearing from view he tried a few long-range efforts from the halfway line. The attacking instinct was alive and well with Van Hooijdonk. There will be no doubt who will step up when a free-kick is awarded to the Dutch team tomorrow night, although he plays down his potency. "My free-kick is just part of my game. It has been an important part of our UEFA Cup run. I hope that on the day I can score a goal from a set-piece."
With two impressive defences on show, it may well be that a set piece is either side's best chance of winning what promises to be a close encounter in Rotterdam. If that is the case and Feyenoord are the ones celebrating come the final whistle, the impact will be huge on Van Hooijdonk. "It would mean a lot," he added. "First of all I am 32 and I cannot imagine that we as a Dutch team will have another opportunity to win a medal in the UEFA Cup or UEFA Champions League. We what we did this year has been very special." Aside from the benefits in playing in their home stadium, Van Hooijdonk admitted the one-off nature of the tie would also aid his side. "For us it is a good situation to play Dortmund over one leg because I rate them as as a better squad. But on the day, I think we can beat anybody."
Flying the flag
With the Dutch not being involved in next month's 2002 FIFA World Cup finals, Feyenoord will have extra motivation to do well. "I think we are flying the flag for Holland," Van Hooijdonk said. "It was a disappointing season, the worst still has to come in June. Nobody expected anything from the Dutch sides in Europe. We were knocked out early from the Champions League, that was another disappointment. But, all of a sudden, we are in the final and the whole country is behind us. It will be a great thing if we can win the trophy." And an even greater thing, no doubt, if he can hit the winner with one of those trademark, twisting free-kicks.