My debut at Ajax was a very interesting one.
I was staying with my Aunt for a couple of months in the south east of Amsterdam, as my mother was in Suriname. Everyday on my way to and from school I would pass the Amsterdam Arena as it was being built. I remember I would always say to myself quietly as I passed: “I want to make my debut in this stadium.”
One Sunday in the summer of 1996, I was at home with my family and girlfriend, celebrating as I had been awarded the best player of a very important tournament. All of a sudden my house bell rang, and I answered the door to see the club physiotherapist standing on the other side.
“Your house phone doesn’t work,” he said, “but you need to train with the first team tomorrow.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re going to make your debut at the opening of the new stadium. Louis Van Gaal has been watching your progress for some time now, but don’t tell him I told you,” he explained.
I returned inside to celebrate with my family, but at that moment I was overcome with nerves. I knew later that week I’d be playing in front of 50,000 people against AC Milan. An AC Milan side that Ajax had just beaten in the Champions League final.
August 14th 1996 – the day of the game. I watched the likes of Paulo Maldini and Marcel Desailly warm up in their Milan tracksuits, but the player who really caught my attention was George Weah. He was the best player in the world at the time, and he was stood across from me laughing and joking during the warm up.
It was a friendly and Weah was visibly relaxed, but for me it was the biggest game of my life.
I sat down on the bench and watched as both starting elevens took to the field. Sixty minutes in, Van Gaal’s assistant, Gerrard Van Der Lem told me to go and warm up. I will never forget that warm up. I was sprinting around, doing every stretch and movement you can imagine. Then, with 15 minutes to go, Van Gaal signalled for me to make my way to the sideline.
My heart started to beat even faster. I thought to myself: “Come on. This is the moment you always wanted.”
As Van Gaal talked tactics to me, all I could focus on were the Ajax and Milan stars I was about to play with.
On the field, Weah dropped a shoulder, the ball bouncing over my head for him to control with ease. It felt liek he’d taken me back to school. My legs were tired from the crazy, over-excited warmup I had done.
I ended up giving away a penalty and we lost 3-0. I was disappointed, sitting in a corner of the dressing room thinking about how my 15 minutes on the pitch felt more like 90. Van Gaal walked up to me and told me that I played well and said: “Don’t ever give a penalty away, gamble on Edwin Van Der Sar to stop the player from scoring. That’s why we have one of the best keepers in the world.”
I went home and studied the game.
The next week I came on again, but I’d learnt from my mistake and did a much lighter warm up. I didn’t feel nervous, just focussed and ready. The rest is beautiful history.