Cody Gakpo is having a much better time at this World Cup than at the last.
In 2018 he was a teenage prospect watching the tournament – which the Netherlands failed to qualify for.
Four years later, he played a big part in the Netherlands’ progress to the knockout stages as unbeaten group winners.
The PSV Eindhoven winger set the tournament on fire for the Dutch, scoring the first goal of their three group matches, including Tuesday’s. 2-0 win over hosts Qatar.
The three-time finalists have advanced to the first knockout round, where they will face the United States – and are determined to make up for lost time.
“It’s really special for us to be here because last time we weren’t there,” Gakpo said. “We dominated the group and worked very hard. It’s great for us.
“In 2018 I was watching the games and it was less fun because the Netherlands weren’t there.
“I was 19. It wasn’t really a goal to be at a World Cup back then; it was more about being in the PSV first team. I worked and worked , then I set goals to try to be in the national team.
“Now we’re here and I’m really happy that we’re good as a team and hopefully we can keep winning games.”
BBC Sport spoke to three Dutch players – captain Virgil van Dijk, defender Nathan Ake and comrade forward Memphis Depay – evaluate the qualities of the Gakpo.
Gakpo can “become a star”
Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Gakpo, but the Premier League outfit may well be forced to shell out a lot more money to get him if he continues his impressive display at the World Cup.
Standing at 6ft 4in, Gakpo is athletic and looks complete with his pace and ability to create a goal for his teammates as well as find the net himself.
He showed off his aerial prowess as the Dutch beat Senegal 2-0 in their opener, beating Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy on a cross to head out, before crashing out early in the 1-1 draw with Ecuador and finishing off a great shot against Qatar.
“Cody is a very young player, he’s 23 but he looks younger,” said boss Louis van Gaal. “He’s only been playing with PSV for two, three years and has always played on the left side.
“He didn’t want to play center or at 10, but he had to do it for me. Now he thinks I’m a great head coach.
“Things can change but Cody has what it takes to be a star. He has a wonderful personality to be a star player because he’s open-minded to anything and everything.”
Gakpo “will go to the top”
Against Qatar, Gakpo became the first Dutch player to score in his first three World Cup games and he underlined why he could rise to the top by equaling previous Dutch greats.
Gakpo became only the fourth Dutch player to score in three consecutive World Cup matches after Johan Neeskens (1974), Dennis Bergkamp (1998) and Wesley Sneijder (2010).
Nice company to have – and Captain Van Dijk was impressed.
“Hopefully Cody can go to the moon and come back,” said the Liverpool defender. “He’s a very good player and a good boy too.
“What we see in training is what you see on the pitch. There is still so much potential and I hope he can continue to show it for us. We are very happy with him.”
Former Manchester United striker Depay said: “He’s very important. He’s scored in three out of three games – that record speaks for itself. One of his qualities is that he’s a player who scores. goals; he puts himself in positions where he can find the net.
“He’s been consistent from the first moment, so I’m thrilled to see him play like that on the big stage.”
Manchester City defender Ake added: “He’s a top player. You can see that. It’s not just about his talent; he also works very hard. He’s a very nice guy and I’m sure he’ll go to the top.”
Gakpo has been in remarkable form, having been involved in 35 goals in 29 games for club and country this season – 17 goals and 18 assists.
But he was modest in his response when asked if he was aiming to be the top scorer at the World Cup.
“The most important thing for us is to win games,” he said. “If I can contribute with goals, it’s really good for me and for the team.
“If I don’t score and we win, that’s just as well.”