Four phenomenal talents have emerged from the famed Ajax Academy. Will it be another wasted Dutch generation or the one to finally win the World Cup?
In the mid-1800s, a Bulgarian man by the name of Vasil Levski was coordinating a revolution against the Ottoman Empire. After multiple failed armed attempts in his younger years, Levski began to sow the seeds of a deeper, more intricate revolution around the Bulgarian region. He published an ideological statute and helped to create revolutionary bases in many towns and cities. Levski’s work was a major reason why the national attitude shifted away from Ottoman sympathy, leading to the April Uprising in 1876.
Vasil Levski wasn’t there to witness the initial stages of an independent Bulgaria – he was captured and hung three years prior. This is the inherently risky nature of leading a revolution.
Nearly 150 years after the execution of Bulgaria’s most prominent soldier for independence, the Dutch national team visited the aptly named Vasil Levski National Stadium to compete in a World Cup qualifying match. In a peculiar way, the lackluster Netherlands squad was beginning a revolution of its own. Then-17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt was the first of Ajax’s new generation to debut with the senior national team. However, as with Levski’s uprising over a century before, things didn’t really go as planned.
Matthijs de Ligt had been hyped up for months for his successes as an Ajax defender and was the youngest player to debut for the national team for three-quarters of a century. On that night, he failed miserably. Bulgaria scored two early goals and de Ligt was at fault for both. National team coach Danny Blind subbed him off at halftime, a crude ending to a nightmare debut. However, the short-term failure shouldn’t be looked at as a catastrophe. De Ligt’s emergence signaled the start of what could be the next Dutch revolution. Or, as some would say, an Ajax revolution.
After a tightly-fought 1995 Champions League Final, Ajax boss Louis van Gaal felt he needed to make a change to defeat the mighty AC Milan. On came 18-year-old striker Patrick Kluivert, tipped to be the next great forward to emerge from the famed Ajax academy. In a moment that foreshadowed the rest of his career, Kluivert carried the ball past his marker, fending off recovering defenders, and poked the ball over the goal line. Ajax had managed to reach the heights of the famous teams of the 1970s, and they did so with a youthful brilliance.
In the two decades following that European triumph, promising generations have come and gone at Ajax. The beginning of the millennium saw youth products like Rafael van der Vaart, Johnny Heitinga, and Wesley Sneijder break into the first team. They built the foundations of Holland’s successful 2010 World Cup campaign but stumbled at the last hurdle like the team 36 years prior. Since that generation, which was truthfully led by players from other Dutch youth systems, Ajax haven’t been able to produce a great volume of talented players. Sure, many current Premier League stars can trace their development to De Toekomst, but Daley Blind is the only Dutchman.
The Dutch have struggled for years. After failing to make the European Championships and World Cup, there is little doubt that the country is in a footballing crisis. Johan Cruijff once said that Holland succeeds when the big three – Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV – succeed. With years of lackluster talent production from the big clubs, the country now feels the after-effects in the form of a failing national team.
It was reported last month that FC Barcelona sent a scout to watch Ajax’s match against PEC Zwolle. This is nothing unusual, as big sides are always on the lookout for Ajax’s talented youngsters. However, what was different about this scouting mission was the subject, or subjects, of it. Four Ajax youngsters, three youth academy graduates and one purchased, were reportedly the subject of investigation for one of Europe’s most historical clubs. But be wary, these four wonderkids have four different stories that have lead up to this moment.
After scoring the winning goal in the Champions League, Patrick Kluivert went on to have a phenomenal career that saw him lead the line for some of Europe’s best clubs. The lanky forward dazzled defenses in Spain, Italy, and England, and amassed 40 goals for the Dutch national team. Kluivert has gone down not only as one of Holland’s best attackers in history, but as one of the most enthralling forwards the game has ever seen.
Unfortunately, 18-year-old Justin Kluivert doesn’t remember much of his father’s playing days. The quick youngster was born in 1999, and by the time his brain capacity grew, Patrick’s career was on the decline. What Justin missed in terms of match highlights he made up for with natural talent. His father enrolled him in the Ajax youth academy at the age of eight. Nearly a decade-long period of development saw the mesmerizing left-winger make his first team debut at Ajax.
When Ajax lost the Europa League Final to Manchester United last season, José Mourinho took care to embrace the young Kluivert. Perhaps it was a nostalgic moment for Mourinho, who coached Justin’s father for two years at Barcelona. Maybe it was even a sign of things to come; a pre-eminent seduction of the player before United make a transfer bid. Whichever it was, there’s little doubt that Justin Kluivert is becoming one of the hottest prospects in world football.
In an interview with The Independent, Kluivert describes himself as a ‘typical Amsterdammer’. This couldn’t be truer. Born in the city nicknamed the “Venice of the North”, Justin grew up playing football in tight quarters. The constrained Amsterdam has produced some of Europe’s most technical players over time, and Kluivert doesn’t stray far from that model. He’s a dynamic inverted-winger who loves to take on defenders before cutting inside or swooping back to run towards the byline. Kluivert’s unpredictability is reminiscent of some of Europe’s best wingers, while his finishing ability may be compared to a certain relative of his.
Justin Kluivert’s rise to the Ajax first team was much quicker than expected. Now, enter Donny van de Beek – Ajax’s do-it-all midfielder. The 20-year-old Dutch national team debutant has been a fixture on the first team’s bench for years. However, it took the sale of Davy Klaassen to Everton last summer for the blonde Dutchman to finally emerge as an undisputed starter.
Donny’s well-rounded ability makes him the perfect supplement in a three-man Ajax midfield. The flashy Hakim Ziyech operates in a free role, roaming around in space, while Lasse Schöne sits deep in front of the backline. Often times, van de Beek is the highest midfielder up the pitch, allowing him to easily connect with the likes of Kluivert and Neres in dangerous positions. Donny is a fan favorite at the club; his passion for Ajax and those at the club is rare in today’s market-driven sport.
That passion was forefront last summer in a Champions League qualifying match in Nice. Van de Beek scored a lovely chip to equalize, immediately running to celebrate in honor of his fallen teammate, Abdelhak Nouri. Making a “34” with his fingers, Donny was clearly emotional after the recent incident which saw his long-time friend endure serious brain damage after a heart attack on the pitch. Ever selfless, genuine, and humble, Donny van de Beek represents everything Ajax strives to be.
Donny was born just outside of Amsterdam, but he quickly joined the Ajax youth academy. In De Toekomst, he used the talent developed as a young child to grow into a phenomenal midfielder. The cheerful spirit was never a standout in any facet of the game, but you’d be hard pressed to find an exploitable weakness in the 20-year-old. A great finisher, smart tempo-setter, and well-rounded defender, Donny van de Beek is surely going to be a fixture in the Dutch squad for the next decade or so.
On that cold March night in Bulgaria, Dutch coach Danny Blind made the choice to hand a young player his national team debut. That young player was Matthijs de Ligt, who at the time had only started two Eredivisie matches in his career. As mentioned, the night ended in failure when the 17-year-old was substituted off at halftime. Many said it was too early to hand de Ligt his debut, never mind in a crucial qualifier across Europe. A crass decision, pundits and fans ridiculed, that compounded on other factors which eventually cost Blind his job. If you were in the boots of Blind at the time, though, you’d see exactly why the defender seemed ready to take the large step.
If there’s a player in the Netherlands who has achieved as much as Matthijs de Ligt has at such a young age, I would like to meet him. De Ligt won multiple youth tournament Best Player awards before his promotion to Jong Ajax, the under-21 squad playing in the Dutch second division. Last January, at the age of 17, he became the youngest player to captain a professional team in Holland. When he scored for the Ajax first team on his debut in 2016, he became the second-youngest goal scorer in the club’s history. All of this, added to the fact that he’s the youngest national team player since 1931, means that de Ligt has plenty to live up to.
The funny, soft-spoken Matthijs de Ligt is a beast of a player. Standing tall and stocky, you’d be forgiven for trying to avoid him as much as possible on the pitch. After the departure of Davinson Sánchez last summer, de Ligt took over a much larger role in the defense. Many say that he’s the most prepared to make the step up to a club like Barcelona. I’d tend to agree, although his current partner in defense certainly gives him a run for his money.
Frenkie de Jong is probably the name you’ve heard the most out of the news sources in Holland this season. He’s also the strangest of the four aforementioned youngsters, having joined Ajax at a late age. The smaller club Willem II can be credited with much of his development until he joined Ajax at 18. Yet, a player cannot be coached into developing this kind of technical talent. Therefore, it was only a matter of time until de Jong reached his ceiling and moved to a larger Dutch club. Just as, in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time until he moves abroad to a larger club.
Don’t get it twisted: Frenkie is not a defender. Former manager Marcel Keizer slotted the attack-minded midfielder into the backline due to injuries, and the recently-appointed Erik ten Hag has continued this trend into the new year. De Jong has succeeded in a libero-esque role reminiscent of what Ruud Krol did for the club in the Cruijff era. Ajax haven’t even struggled defensively with a playmaker in defense, as the control they’re able to exert over the opposition is so massive. It’s certainly not a sustainable role for the youngster, especially if he moves to a Barcelona or Manchester City, but it works in the Eredivisie for now.
In his natural position Frenkie is a deep-lying playmaker, or perhaps even a more advanced playmaker. De Jong is the most technically brilliant Dutch player we’ve seen come out of the Ajax youth ranks since Wesley Sneijder. I may even argue that the Zuid-Holland-born De Jong can surpass the status of Holland’s most capped player ever. A dribbler with immense talent and confidence, watching Frenkie glide across the pitch is like watching a freestyle skater at the Olympics. His innate ability to create space for himself naturally leads to more space for his teammates, which is exactly what a creative player ought to do.
Year after year, competition after competition, Dutch players have risen up to challenge the world’s best footballers. Every time–1974, 1978, 2010–they step up to the plate ready to swing for the fences. Every time they strike out. The eternal question begging to be answered is ‘why the hell can’t the Dutch win a World Cup!?’ They’ve got the talent, something that has been proven time after time. They’ve got the innovation of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruijff, and all of those who’ve come after them. Is it systemic? Down to a poor case of bad luck?
To answer this question is to answer whether the likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt are the players to lead the Dutch to their first ever World Cup victory. It’s a multi-layered, extremely complicated prose: one that nobody, not even the KNVB hierarchy, can answer fully. What we know for sure is that football is a team sport. No amount of individual talent across the pitch will make up for a lackluster goalkeeper, slow-to-think passer, or poor finisher. The aforementioned four, with a special focus on de Jong and de Ligt, are the most likely to be the backbone of the team for years to come. But that’s only two out of the eleven positions on the pitch.
With that said, there’s also no denying the influence that one brilliant performance can have on an important match. When Patrick Kluivert took to the pitch in Vienna in 1995, his quick touch and goal made sure that whatever AC Milan did over the previous 85 minutes didn’t matter at all. Yet, it was the creativity and skill of his teammates that opened up the opportunity in the first place. Similarly, decades later, Matthijs de Ligt’s fateful errors in Bulgaria were an accumulation of poor managerial decisions and a lack of team cohesiveness.
So, no. Justin Kluivert’s mercurial wing play will not defeat a German squad in isolation. Donny van de Beek’s passion would make him a great captain, but he doesn’t have the skill to score against Brazil by himself. Frenkie de Jong’s berating runs won’t be possible against a sturdy France without help from his teammates. And no, Matthijs de Ligt’s strength on and off the ball won’t help the Netherlands qualify for a major competition all by itself. Not only won’t these four players win a World Cup via their special talents, but the Ajax academy simply cannot produce enough players to influence the Dutch squad alone. To truly form a revolution in the Netherlands, just like Vasil Levski did over a century ago, everyone must be included. Feyenoord, PSV; everyone.
Through a combination of coaching, the Dutch children’s love for football, and a bit of luck, the Ajax academy seems to be entering a golden era once again. Perhaps it is another bust that will end in a massive failure. Or maybe, just maybe, this is the generation that will finally deliver a World Cup trophy to the trophy-parched Netherlands once and for all.