There was a real sense of excitement when Georginio Wijnaldum made his first-team debut for Feyenoord in April 2007 at the tender age of 16. The young midfielder already carried a reputation as one of the biggest prodigies of the Rotterdam side’s youth academy and his performance in that Eredivisie match versus Groningen only further boosted his reputation.
Yet despite making over 130 appearances for Feyenoord before even turning 21, Wijnaldum never really managed to live up to the high expectations at De Kuip.
Even when he netted 14 goals in 34 league games in 2010-11, the attacking midfielder came in for criticism on a regular basis. Many felt Wijnaldum lacked the vision to play in midfield, rued his profligacy in front of goal and his tendency to go for the difficult solution rather than play a simple pass didn’t win him many admirers either.
After leaving Feyenoord for PSV in the summer of 2011, the Rotterdam-native initially continued to divide opinion among fans. His frivolous style of play and intuitive dribbling helped him win over some of his critics, yet his occasionally wasteful play angered plenty of supporters, too.
Things have changed for Wijnaldum in the past two seasons, however.
In 2012-13, the gifted midfielder not only netted an impressive 20 goals in 45 appearances in all competitions, but he also developed from a playful midfielder into a mature player capable of taking his side by the hand on difficult moments. With key figures such as Kevin Strootman, Mark van Bommel, Dries Mertens and Jeremain Lens all leaving PSV ahead of the 2013-14 campaign, the Eindhoven side were looking toward Wijnaldum as one of the team’s new leaders.
The versatile midfielder did not let the PSV hierarchy down and showed that he was up for the task at hand with a string of fine performances in the opening months of the season, resulting in a call-up for Netherlands’ friendly against Portugal in August, only his third cap at senior level some two years after his debut for Oranje.
"Wijnaldum used to play on the right wing, but is playing in midfield now. I really like players like him. He has really surprised me," commented Louis van Gaal on the 23-year-old’s return to the national side.
The midfielder’s hopes of making it to Brazil were dealt a huge blow shortly after his comeback for Holland, however, with a persistent back injury keeping him out of action for the majority of the season. But Wijnaldum eventually returned to full match fitness just in time for Van Gaal to include him in his provisional squad and the PSV star has not looked back since. He quickly convinced the Netherlands boss that he could be of added value in Brazil and made the final squad, too.
Wijnaldum had to settle for a spot on the bench in Oranje’s opening two games versus Spain and Australia, but he proved to be a significant upgrade on Jonathan De Guzman after coming on in both matches and featured from the start against Chile and Mexico.
"We all want to do whatever is best for the team. It's irrelevenant how I prefer to play and what I want. It's all about what works for the team. Against Chile, I needed to stay close to my direct opponent and do a lot of defensive work," Wijnaldum stated after the 2-0 win over Chile to underline his more maturity.
His ever-increasing status with the national side is a just reward for the impressive development Wijnaldum has gone through in recent years. It might have taken him a bit of time, but the sympathetic midfielder is finally coming of age. And that he is doing so at the World Cup – the biggest stage possible – is only further proof that Wijnaldum has grown up at last.
With Nigel de Jong out of action due to injury, the PSV man will only become more important to Holland. His recent development suggests that he is more than ready for that extra responsibility, however.