He was one of the most impressive performers for the Netherlands as his side claimed third place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, but it was when he was substituted ahead of the quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica that was one of the most talked about moments of the Oranje’s successful tournament.
Watching Jasper Cillessen training from behind the goal is an impressive experience – the moment the Ajax Amsterdam goalkeeper takes off from the ground with feline reflexes is over in the blink of an eye as he touches a swerving free-kick onto the crossbar. Standing next to the 25-year-old with his gloves on is Dutch goalkeeping legend Edwin van der Sar, who has made the leap to management level but is donning his training gear for a day at the Aspire Academy in Doha, Qatar, where the Dutch champions are training as they look to land a fifth successive domestic league crown.
After a series of further spectacular saves and signing a good number of autographs for waiting fans, Cillessen took time to speak to us exclusively on his clear choice for the FIFA Ballon d’Or awards, as well as his save against Spain’s David Silva in the opening game and the moment he was substituted in that famous quarter-final victory in Brazil.
FIFA.com: Jasper, who is your personal favourite for the FIFA Ballon d’Or when the decision is announced in Zurich on Monday?
Jasper Cillessen: I hope Manuel Neuer will win. He is really great, he deserves it. Because I’m a goalkeeper, my vote would go to him. If you see how he played with the German team and also FC Bayern, I think he was really, really important for both teams. I think outfield players score goals, but he tries to do everything not to let them go in. He was the best in the world by far.
In that case how would you rank your top three?
I only have one, and that is Neuer. In football only the number one counts.
The other two are the best forwards in the world. As a goalkeeper you have also had the chance to keep out the shots of one of them.
Yes, I haven’t played against Ronaldo, but I played against Messi and it was not that nice in the Champions League. In the Dutch team we did a better job. They are all world class players.
During Brazil 2014, Manuel Neuer became famous for his excursions from the penalty box in a kind of libero role, especially in the match against Algeria. Is that something you are also looking to incorporate into your game?
You try, but not as far as him because he is much better, at the moment the best in the world. I am lucky to train today with Edwin van der Sar, who is still my favourite, the best in my opinion, but Neuer comes close at the moment. Edwin was my role model and I am lucky that he is here at the moment, I feel like a little boy getting to train with him.
You are still relatively young for a goalkeeper at 25. Can you achieve something similar to what he did for Ajax?
I hope I can, let’s see if I can come close. But it will be difficult to be as great as Edwin van der Sar. He was the best in the world.
I came third in the world in my first tournament – that is not bad.
Frank de Boer was crucial in discovering your talent. How important has he been for Ajax?
Really important. He made Ajax champions of the Dutch league four times in a row, and now we are looking for a fifth, so he is really important for us.
In Brazil you started in goal for a football nation like the Netherlands at your first World Cup. How did that feel?
It is something you dream of when you are a little boy; you want to go to a World Cup and you want to play. When I was younger I tried to achieve it. When you play for a smaller club it is not likely to happen, but when you play for Ajax the chances are bigger. I was happy that the coaches chose me, and it was a dream come true. I came third in the world in my first tournament – that is not bad.
What were some of your most special moments and important saves in the tournament?
The first game against Spain, starting the tournament was the most important and the biggest. To beat Spain 5-1 in the first game was a dream come true. The Dutch media says the save against Silva was crucial, and also against Costa Rica, if the ball goes in you have to go home. In the end I played a semi-final of a World Cup.
In the quarter-final match against Costa Rica, one of the most talked about moments of the tournament was when you were substituted before the penalty shoot-out. What thoughts went through your head at that moment?
It was a great move by the coach, but for me it was not that great because I want to play everything. But in the end I was happy because I was able to play in the semi-final of a World Cup.
Do you think you can continue in goal for the Netherlands until the 2022 FIFA World Cup here in Qatar?
I hope I can reach it. I have a great example here in Edwin van der Saar who played 131 games for Holland. I hope I can achieve that, so that I can go there. For now though we have to make the Euro 2016 in France and that is what we are looking forward to.
How has the current training camp in Qatar helped Ajax Amsterdam to prepare for your objectives this season?
We want to win the championship again, so we want to win every game and reach the next stage in the Europa League. The facilities are great at Aspire Academy, the conditions are perfect. We have everything we want. It is nice weather but not too hot. Sometimes in Brazil it was too hot, but here it is great to be here, I hope we enjoy it and have fun for the rest of the season. It is my first visit to Qatar, we had a small tour on the boat and it was nice. But most of all we see the training ground and the hotel, so it is really great, one of the best hotels I’ve been in.