Belgian defender, 36, key in plans to stop Messi
BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Daniel Van Buyten has been written off as too old and too slow many more times than Lionel Messi has been crowned the best player in the world.
Yet at 36, he stands at the heart of the Belgian defense ready to blunt Argentina’s forwards in the World Cup quarterfinals — and after an outstanding four matches so far, the strategy is not as absurd as it sounds.
Amplifying the age factor, Van Buyten says “I’m almost 37. I am at the World Cup. All goes well.” That is before meeting Messi.
When most of the attention has been on captain Vincent Kompany, it has been his partner in central defense — “Big Dan” — who has been impressive in ways that few expected.
While younger players wilted in the extra-time thriller against the United States on Tuesday, the big, powerful defender stood tall for 120 minutes in the evening heat of Salvador to help ensure the 2-1 victory.
He was just as dependable during the group stage, when he was instrumental in safeguarding three one-goal victories.
What he lost in sheer speed with age, he has made up for in vision and anticipation.
It’s a long way removed from the 2010 UEFA Champions League final between Inter Milan and his Bayern Munich.
With a devastating performance, Inter’s Argentine Diego Milito had run Van Buyten ragged and scored both goals. Of course, the general thinking went that it was surely Van Buyten’s swansong, at 32. Yet on Saturday, there Van Buyten will be listening to the Belgian anthem, with Milito merely a memory for Van Buyten, and the Argentina team.
“There are always tougher parts in a career, and the way to get through that is self-confidence,” Van Buyten said.
There is more to it, though, than just mental stoicism, as the muscle tone in his face still shows. A few days ago, when other players stepped away from the training pitch, Van Buyten remained and kept stretching his body in all kinds of ways to keep it nimble so he can continue competing with much younger players.
“Somehow hard work always pays off,” Van Buyten said.
Coach Marc Wilmots was watching Van Buyten’s warm down routine and was not at all surprised. The pair were teammates the last time Belgium qualified for the World Cup in 2002.
“I watch everything: how he relaxes, what he eats, what he drinks, he even sleeps with a bottle of water,” Wilmots said. “Otherwise you cannot stay eight years at Bayern. And if Bayern watches him play here, they’d better think twice to release him.”
Bayern coach Pep Guardiola has been sending Van Buyten encouragement throughout the World Cup.
His performance in Brazil is especially sweet since this season because he was only considered good enough to get on the Bayern starting lineup for one-third of the Bundesliga games.
As strict as his pre-game preparations are, he does leave himself a little bit of room to celebrate when a celebration is due.
After every World Cup game he has won, he has asked for a glass of red wine.
“But just one glass,” he said. “And on top of that, alcohol is not good for the body.”
Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert