‘I found out I was going by TV’: inside Andries Noppert’s World Cup dream

The story of Andries Noppert’s journey to be the Netherlands first-choice goalkeeper at the Qatar World Cup is a beacon of hope and inspiration. Elite football can be unforgiving and hard-edged, so step forward a genial 6ft 8in 28-year-old whose refusal to believe a serious knee injury had ended his career does, as he suggests, offer “inspiration to children” that dreams should always be chased.

When Noppert was chosen by Louis van Gaal for the Netherlands’ victory over Senegal in their opening Group A match, he was handed an international debut in only his 51st senior match. Noppert might have given up during any of a peripatetic eight years that began when signing for Heerenveen in 2013 and included 12 months out with the knee problem he sustained in October 2019.

After moving from Heerenveen having not made an appearance Noppert joined Breda (2014-18, three league games), then Foggia (2018-19, eight appearances in Serie B) and Dordrecht, where he played twice but sustained the injury before, during lockdown, he finally achieved a successful rehabilitation. Then, when Noppert landed at Go Ahead Eagles in January 2021 for six months, the stellar rise started. There were 15 Eredivisie and five Dutch cup matches and that summer a happy return to his home town Heerenveen where, after 14 more top-flight games, came his shock Qatar 2022 selection.

This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Noppert says: “It was a surprise for sure because we have a lot of goalkeepers in Holland and when you are then in the squad you are surprised when you are actually chosen to play. But there is only one mister in Holland who can make this decision and that is this coach.”

This is Van Gaal who, before Tuesday’s 2-0 win against Qatar that confirmed the Netherlands as group winners, explained that knowing Noppert would be “unimpressed” by the World Cup was a prime factor in his inclusion.

Related: Netherlands breeze into last 16 but Van Gaal bristles at ‘boring’ label

Noppert concurs. “I am not nervous because every game is a final and every game I want to catch the balls – I’m a human and can make mistakes, and I’m not afraid or scared about this,” he says. “Only the first game that we played against Senegal, it was a special moment. You come on the pitch and there was our anthem and this is really special because this is the first time [for me] but after I’m not nervous.

“I never think about being at the World Cup. But it’s a big compliment to come into the squad and to play at the highest level. I found out I was coming by television. Before then I got the email that all players who are in the squad get but then you can fall out of the squad. If you do, you get the call to be told that you’re not in the squad but he didn’t call me and I was watching TV and my name was on the television.”

Andries Noppert throws the ball out during the Netherlands’ victory against Qatar
Andries Noppert has conceded only one goal in three World Cup group games in Qatar. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Although almost supernaturally calm when relating what could be a tale straight from a comic book, Noppert does briefly become emotional. “Of course this is the dream,” he says. “When you are a small [obscure] guy you dream about this but for me the dream was already gone when you see how my career was. But it came true. So this makes it more special because when you understand my history and that you see I can stay here and fight, this is something that children have to believe in too – everything is always possible.”

Noppert has faced multiple setbacks. “I get the injury and it’s going to be bad as I have to try and come back again and again,” he says. “That was four times and then my family said in one moment: ‘You can do it again if you think in your head you can.’ I say: ‘Yes for sure why not? And when it doesn’t work it doesn’t work.’

“But I believed that it would work and look where I am now, and for me this is the most special thing. My family are so happy and proud – they follow me always and everywhere. They were at the game against Ecuador [a 1-1 draw]; it was not our best, but it doesn’t matter. This is a special moment and it [Qatar] is an eye-opener as they have never seen this before.”

The Netherlands face the USA in the last 16 on Saturday and Noppert is allowing himself to fantasise a little. “For sure you dream. I came here with the dream to win the World Cup and in my opinion it’s possible,” he says. “But you have to win every game so I don’t really look at the big goal because this is the goal: to go step by step, play every final, win every final, then win the final.”