Retiring Stefanie van der Gragt “deserves a statue”, coach Andries Jonker said, after her career came to an end with the Netherlands’ 2-1 defeat to Spain in the World Cup quarter-finals Friday.
The defensive stalwart, who turns 31 next week, could not have imagined a more drama-filled finale when she announced she would be retiring at the end of the World Cup.
The centre-back’s handball gave away a penalty on her 106th appearance for her country, scored by Mariona Caldentey in the 81st minute, to put Spain on the verge of the semi-finals.
“I wanted to block the cross. It was a split second and it was so unlucky,” a tearful Van der Gragt said.
But 10 minutes later the Inter Milan player went from villain to hero in Wellington.
As the Dutch poured forward in search of an equaliser, Van der Gragt was pushed up front.
A minute into added time she seized her chance, breaking away to lash home and make it 1-1, forcing extra time.
“It was a nice ball through, the only thing I was thinking was ‘shoot’. It was a good feeling,” she said.
But Van der Gragt’s dreams of signing out by winning the World Cup were torpedoed in the 111th minute when Spanish teenager Salma Parralluelo scored on the break.
“It’s hard now,” added Van der Gragt. “We had the chance in extra time and we didn’t score, they had one chance and they scored. That’s football.”
After spells as a player at Bayern Munich, Ajax, Barcelona and Inter, Van der Gragt will now become technical manager at her first club, AZ Alkmaar.
“I don’t think about it now. I’ll think about it at home that it was my last game,” added Van der Gragt, who said she accepted the job to be closer to her family.
She admitted it was hard to walk off the Wellington pitch knowing she had played her last game. “I have to be proud of myself and the team,” she added.
Van der Gragt was part of the Dutch team who lost the 2019 World Cup final to the United States. She scored the winning goal against Portugal in the group stage in this tournament.
Jonker hailed Van der Gragt’s performances over the years in the famous orange shirt.
“This kind of defender is disappearing in modern football,” he said.
“This mentality, this huge will to win, to fight.
“She’s not the best player in the world, but maybe the best defender, as she has shown in the national team for more than 100 matches.
“One way or another, I think she deserves a statue.”
Jonker left the door open for Van der Gragt to resume her international career if she has a change of heart.
“We respect her a lot. It’s her choice, but if she would change her mind, she would be welcomed.”
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