Every so often a teenager comes along and lights up the world, making seasoned pro’s at the top of the game look average. It normally takes a few years for these players to mature into World Class footballers. Ronaldo and Messi are two good examples, regarded by many as the greatest pair of footballers the world has ever seen, but they didn’t hit their full stride until they reached their early 20’s.
There are some exceptions – Neymar and Mbappe became global superstars before their 20th birthdays, and Pele is another classic example, becoming the top scorer in the Brazilian league aged just 16. These guys are all the rarest of talents that don’t come around too often. But there are many exciting young players currently making their way up the ranks at their clubs, who could become future Ballon d’Or contenders if everything goes to plan!
Patrick Kluivert scored the winner in the 1995 Champions League final at the age of 18, bringing the most coveted club cup back to Ajax. Now his son Justin is 18, and broke his way into the Ajax first team last season after some dazzling performances for the reserves. At the weekend Justin managed something his dad never did for Ajax, scoring a hat-trick and taking home the match ball. Patrick was Ajax’s top scorer in two of his three seasons there, but he never scored a hat-trick for them, so Justin already has some bragging rights.
Justin’s three goals against Roda were all world class. He showed his rapid pace, slick dribbling, and excellent finishing abilities with all three goals. He plays on the left wing and loves to cut inside onto his right foot, and will be a dangerous player just like his dad.
The key thing that Justin has just like his dad is that they are so confident at such a young age and never worry about who their opponent is. That’s why they will take you on no matter how good you are.
Andreas Christensen became the first player from Chelsea’s academy since John Terry to start and finish three consecutive Premier League matches for Chelsea at the weekend. The Danish international is now 21, and it looks like he might have displaced David Luiz in Conte’s back three.
Christensen was on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach for the previous two seasons, and was voted player of the season in his first year ahead of Granit Xhaka. Gladbach tried to sign him permanently following that, but Chelsea rejected the £14m bid and now he is growing into a key member of the blues defensive set up. It means David Luiz will have to work very hard to fight his way back into the team!
Another player with a famous dad, Timothy Weah is aiming to follow in George’s footsteps. Weah Jr has been born and raised in the USA, but moved to France in 2014 to sign for his dad’s former club PSG. He plays as a forward, either wider on the right or through the middle, and bagged a hat-trick for PSG youth on his debut in the UEFA youth league. He also scored a hat-trick for the United States at the Under-17 World Cup in their 5-0 win over Paraguay.
He has big boots to fill with Mr Geroge, as I like to call him, going to the very top and winning the Ballon d’Or. But it looks like he has passed some of those skillful genes on!
The Stockport-born midfielder, who turned 17 in May, became Man City’s youngest-ever Champions League player when he came on against Feyenoord last week. There has been plenty of excitement around Foden after he played a key part in England’s Under-17 World Cup victory, where he won the Golden Boy award for best player of the tournament.
He plays in the centre of midfield and came on for Yaya Toure in the UCL. After the game Yaya said: “Phil Foden is fantastic. I think he is the future.” Big words from a city veteran who has been training with Foden all season.
Vinicius Junior became the second most expensive Brazilian transfer of all time, behind Neymar, when he was bought by Real Madrid for €45m in the summer. That was despite the fact he had never played a professional game of football. He was the top scorer and elected the best player at South American under-17 championship, and the Real Madrid scouts obviously saw something special when they paid that sum for his future services.
The Brazilian was immediately loaned back to his starting club Flamengo and is due to move to Spain on his 18th birthday next year.
In life there are great things that we like to do as a child. We grow up idolizing someone that is special in our eyes. We look at our parents and think damn, these are the coolest. We ask them for their blessings, to believe in us and support the dreams we try to achieve.
For most kids in Amsterdam, that dream is playing for the great team called Ajax. The club that you naturally fall in love with. Ajax becomes our first girlfriend because before that the only time we feel love is for our families. When you are young you think girls are silly, but when you’re older you fall in love with one and you think what was I thinking?
But that isn’t the case with Ajax. When you love them you stay with them. You’re crazy about them. You go to school and play on the streets and you call yourself one of the star players of the first team. You work every day trying to get closer to your dream and when you think you’re almost there someone disappoints you in your journey, but instead of giving up you learn how to use it as a motivation. You go home and think about how you can change their mind in thinking you are a great player.
Every year at Ajax they tell you in December and in May if you meet the standard and will stay or leave the academy. Yes you are a child that has to deal with the emotional situation of a grown man because that’s how you get treated. When you go over all the tough hurdles and make it to the first team you feel you finally made it. Your family and friends are happy but a lot of people will say you’re lucky. But how much of it is luck when you work on your dream every day rain or shine. When it pays off it’s not luck but pure focus and determination to win every fight.
You make your debut and become part of the first team of Ajax so your happy. Then you get told that staying there is even harder than getting there.
Nouri made it and went on training camp with Ajax. He had the feeling that, “Finally I was going to play for a coach that understands me. He knows me because he was my coach in the reserves and will give me a fair chance to shine.” Don’t we all play better when we get a chance of someone that believes in us at our jobs?
It all started great – new coach, new goals and he was feeling stronger in every training session, and got two setbacks because of his ankle injuries but still kept thinking he will be fine. The game starts and he’s running around comfortably without any worries. Then around the 72nd minute, he managed to lie down himself knowing something was up. This super talented young player had to do the fight that he won before in the Ajax youth all over again, but this time it has a different ending.
Kid, if there was anything in the world I could wish for right now for you and your family, it would be for me coming to the Johan Cruyff arena to see you play. Damn, how cool would that have been? But now I won’t have that opportunity, so I send you and your loved ones all the strength and togetherness your family needs in this difficult time.
This game means a lot for Ajax.
Holland’s most famous club have been waiting for some glory on the European scale. After losing the league this season by a close call to the big arrivals Feyenoord (who hadn’t won it for 18 years) it feels like my old homegrown team needs this more than winning the league again, because the recognition on the international scale is what the team needs.
Ajax will always be known for developing their own talent and taking risks by allowing them to excel in the first team. Over the years they have become renowned for fielding young talented players.
There are quite a few teams that do that now but no one does it like Ajax do. Most teams have the financial backbone but Ajax has to be creative to stay alive in this great game where money is key.
My development as an Ajax youngster started when I was nine so I know how hard, yet fun it is to see so many young talents that will be involved on the big stage like the Europa league final. This is what the club talk about all the time because from a young age you learn to deal with big expectations. That way you won’t crack under pressure – which can happen to pro’s when they progress fast like the youngsters at Ajax.
Ajax do have to be smart in the Europa League final because Jose Mourinho already started his plan as soon as the final was confirmed, when he called his team the underdog and rested key players. If you look at the squads on paper and the money Man Utd spend on putting their star team together – Ajax must be laughing when they heard that.
That’s also normal when you’re a winner like Mourinho and will do whatever it takes, even if the team performance might not look that great to the spectator. If he needs to win the game and sit deep allowing Ajax to have the ball, then hurting them when they make a mistake, that’s exactly what he will do. Ajax on the other hand have to be smart. If Peter Bosz plays naively and falls for the trap by leaving space behind the defensive line, Man Utd will take advantage with counterattacks.
This final should have brought happiness and excitement to Manchester, and we will watch the beautiful game, but we will always remember the sad story that unraveled two days ago where families went to enjoy music like the should, but tragically had to run for their lives.
When I was at Ajax a player called Gerald Sibon joined the club from Roda, and like most people from the capital, we thought that people from places outside of Amsterdam were a little slower and more naive sometimes. When they arrive at Ajax they have to be twice as aware of everything.
It only took a couple of training sessions to see that Gerald needed some time to settle in. We used to do a drill where it would be three on three plus a keeper on both sides. The idea was that tackles would come flying in and you could shoot from one goal to another if you aren’t closing down your man quick enough. Whenever we would play this intense game Sibon would close you down so late that you really felt like you were training with your grandmother in the park. He would get bullied with trickery like crazy, by any teammate.
Sibon would get nutmegged over and over and keep falling on the floor, so his teammates would be screaming to him: “come on, are you awake Gerald?” When the training was done this guy looked like he was lost and didn’t know what happened to him.
His teammates were angry because they lost, and this was a game that was played seriously at the weekend because the coaches were standing around the pitch screaming “Reds are beating yellows so easy, oh my god!”
Trust me, every player would get pumped from this. After this intense game we would be back in the dressing room gloating, dancing around and celebrating because we won. All just to make them feel worse – we acted like kids and we didn’t care.
We could see Gerald Sibon sitting in his chair and Richard Witschge, the clown of the team, walked over to him and asked, “bro you need to work on studying the game because it’s going too fast for you. We are all getting TVs tomorrow so that no one has an excuse not to be ready to understand every training session and set up.”
Gerald said: “I need more than that to keep up but that’s a great start.” Richard responded: “Good we should get the TVs in a couple of days.”
Two days later we enter the dressing room and four players had a box at their seats. Gerald asked: “Why isn’t everyone getting TVs?” Richard said: “Some got given their TVs yesterday and some will get them today, including you.”
Gerald was super excited and said: “Great because I brought my wife’s car with me today.” You cloud see the excitement in his face.
We finished training and Gerald was helped by some players to get the box to his car because it was really heavy. The next morning we were supposed to play this fast intense game again at training, so Gerald came into the dressing room and the coach explain what we were going to do.
Richard said: “Whoever is on Gerald’s team is going to have a problem because he prepared very well. Tell them Gerald.”
Gerald looked up angry and said: “You guys are D******* for tricking me!” Everyone asked what happened and Gerald explained: “I came home tired from training and struggled for a long time to carry this heavy box inside the house on my own. In the evening I decided to unpack it, I’m super excited and opened the box to set up my TV and found the box is full of stones!”
Imagine a group of guys, and bare in mind most of us didn’t know what had happened, so everyone including the coach just started laughing and rolling on the floor. We couldn’t believe he was so stupid to think the club is just going to hand out TVs to players to learn about the training sessions (clubs would give you a video tape or a DVD, but that would be it, you have to go and buy a TV yourself).
The moral of the story is, whenever you are new at a job find the clown and don’t take him serious because he’ll get you.
I have always been a fan of Zlatan.
The only time I ever returned to Ajax, a young Ibrahimovic was there. I had to stay fit for the national team at the end of 2003/04 season while I was in Amsterdam for the week, so Ronald Koeman, Ajax manager at the time, allowed me to train with his first team for the week.
Anyone who meets Zlatan will tell you that he’s an interesting character who says exactly what he wants, and if you don’t like it you’ll just have to deal with it. I learned that first hand.
We were in the players centre at Ajax and Zlatan approached me. If you’ve ever seen clips of him you’ll know that he likes to joke around and tease people. He kept teasing Steven Pienaar and took the jokes quite far, to the point where I thought this is serious. And the next day it happened again, so I walked over and told him to take it easy. He looked at me and then the next morning he started with me.
An hour later we are on the field playing the game so I thought I’m going to give him a lesson. But let me tell you, that was one hard battle. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a player who is that strong and skilled at the same time. I had to use all my force and experience to stop him.
After training, he walked up to me and said “thanks for the battle,” and with that, the teasing was over.
From that day I became a fan. I followed his career closely and saw him win so many trophies in different countries with different clubs. I do understand that people are worried about Marcus Rashford’s playing time and development at Man United now that Zlatan has made the move to Manchester, but this is the perfect opportunity for him.
Learn from the best to be the best.
I’m talking from experience because the first day I arrived in the dressing room at Chelsea it was full of World Cup winners. Life as a footballer should never be too easy and you should always feel like you’re being pushed to your best. What will be better for him – playing up front alone or playing with Zlatan next to him, the player he can go to for advice?
What a luxury!
Going home for my charity had an amazing twist.
Like always, I had one of those beautiful days surrounded by the smiles of children that are all working towards their dreams. I could see the eagerness and passion in all of them – to become the next great talent out of one of the most exciting neighbourhoods in the north
They’re all fighting to win the Mario Melchiot tournament and at the end I always pick the best player out of each age group; the 7-9 and 9-12 year olds. Now it’s become something all the kids want to win because they get to tell all their friends that they are the best in the neighbourhood that year, and the decision gets harder for me every year. It’s not the picking of the best player but the reaction of the ones who didn’t win that makes it hard.
We have had two players that won the best player go on to the Ajax and AZ academies, so that makes it even more exciting. But you can see the disappointment of not being selected as the stand-out player, as of course they want to be appreciated and told they have the chance of becoming a professional footballer.
It does break my heart to see all the emotion in the eyes of those that don’t get picked, but I have to be honest and just pick my favourite. My nephew, who’s team won the tournament the last two years, has missed out on the best player award every time. It takes me weeks to talk to explain why he didn’t win it,and that he’s still my best friend and how much I love him.
After the tournament, my next visit was to my first love, Ajax.
I haven’t visited for over 10 years so it was great to be back. I was given a personal tour by Miel, who is the club’s head of media. He showed me the amazing changes the club has been going through and where they’re heading before I had a special moment: walking out on the pitch where it all started.
I stood in the middle and all the memories came back. My debut, the fans singing “super Mario” as I celebrated after scoring. It was a beautiful moment.
The Same evening I went for a drink with some friends. We were just hanging out when I saw an old Ajax player called Bryan Roy enter the bar. He walked in, saw me and gave me a hug saying “it’s great to see you.”
Little did he know that when I was 11 years old I went to watch Ajax and I remember him coming on the pitch. He was this young talent on the left side with an amazing dribble. The fans would sing his name every game before he came on. When he did come on my day would be perfect.
We would sneak through the gap of the gates to sit with the hardcore fans of Ajax called the F side. It felt like that was the only place where there were real man in the stadium, so being there every week made us feel like men. We then would sing Bryan Roy’s name from the stands. When I told him this story he was shocked and had no idea I was a big fan of his when I was growing up in the Ajax youth system.
To me music is like food, in that I don’t know if I would survive without it.
When I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is read the important emails on my phone and put my music on. I always select music to match my mood, but I do like to keep it relaxed in the morning so I’m happy and ready for the day.
Recently I’ve been listing to a lot of classic R&B and some soul. I’ve been going through my playlist on Spotify and killing my Joe and Maxwell tracks. It’s great to listen back to some old songs as you get ready, and I’ll sometimes sing along – but we won’t talk about the quality of my singing. (In fairness I do think I’m a good shower singer, but now I will always keep it in the shower.)
This bring me to the song I made while I was at Ajax.
One day I got a call from Dean Gorre who I was playing with at the time. He asked if I wanted to make a song with him.
Me with my big mouth said, “of course – why not.”
We then asked Bennie McCarthy and he also agreed, so the three of us began hitting the studio every day after training. I was always worn out by that point, so I ended up falling asleep there sometimes until we got the call: “Guys you’re up!”
When all three of us were in the booth, the only guy that was done quickly was my man Dean. He was really good and sounded a bit like Ice T, so after he was done it was an uphill struggle, especially for me. I tried a number of times and they kept saying, “well done Mario, do it again.”
I started to get frustrated, until some time later they let us hear the final product.
Of course the team started joking about us and calling us names because we started to perform the song in the Netherlands. We were on MTV, Telekids, and at the dutch legends show called Ivo Niehe. The last one was the big one because he interviewed a lot of international stars and he wanted us to perform live on his show.
The final blow came from our coach Jan Wouters. It’s funny now, but at the time we could of killed him.
He told us that his dog used our CD as a frisbee. We of course laughed, but deep inside it was a slightly different feeling, as I’m sure you can imagine. He then told us we had to stop performing. The song was beginning to get played in bars and clothing stores and we were upset because we had just entered the top 100 in Holland, but the team wasn’t playing well and we could see that too.
We gave it up and ended up saving the season by winning the Dutch Cup. But needless to say our short singing career was over.
Now I just do it in the shower, pretending that I’m the coolest there is.
That is until I bumped into my neighbour who asked me if I also heard some crazy drunk guy singing early in the morning, when people just want to wake up in peace.
I said: “Really? I don’t hear it.”
Now I put the volume up so they only hear the real artist, and my vocals are faded in the background.
Johan Cruyff was a big fan of kids playing football on the street.
He owned a lot of street football playgrounds in Holland, which aim to encourage children to keep enjoying football and stay fit.
Cruyff played for another of Holland’s big clubs, Feijnoord, but most people only talk about Ajax because he is such a tall figure in the club’s history, and they suited his playing style more. Since his playing days he was heavily involved at Ajax, the Holland national team and Barcelona.
There was always some friction at the teams he played for because he was a man that stood up for his beliefs and he loved to get his way.
He’s a real hero in Holland and the whole country is going crazy about him passing away. The Ajax board of directors have even spoke about plans to rename the Ajax Arena after the late great.
He will always be known as the man that loved tiki taka – the philosophy in football that involves keeping the ball in the team until your opponent gets tired, so you can capitalise and finish them off. A style that Barcelona and Bayern Munich have become known for under Pep Guardiola.
In France there are many similarities to Holland’s style, especially with the way PSG play. That’s the reason I wanted to play in France, and also the reason why PSG outperformed Chelsea in the Champions League.
Today the Holland national team want to play nice football, but we don’t have the balance in the team to do that. The teams of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup were the best we have had in some time, but the players are now past their peak and they need to rebuild again.
I first encountered Cruyff when I was 11 years old at Ajax youth academy, when he was the coach of Ajax. During one of my games he told my coach to take me off.
Having this iconic player request that I be taken off the field was of course upsetting, and I started to cry at half time. He came up to me and put his arm around me as I asked, “why did you ask my coach to take me off?”
He told me that he’d seen me play many times and that he knew I’d still be there next season, and that he wasn’t sure about the rest. “If you keep working hard you’ll be here for along time coming,” he said – and those words always stuck with me. I remained at Ajax until I was 21 and made the move to Chelsea.
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.
It’s very sad to hear the news that Netherlands icon Johan Cruyff is battling a terrible illness.
I remember when I was a kid and I first came across some TV clips of the famous Dutch number 14. I watched to see if I could steal any of his moves, and I began practicing the famous Cruyff turn – where you cut the ball back behind your standing leg. (I ended up knowing that trick so well that it lead to the winning free kick in the FA Cup Final with Chelsea, when I got the better of Ugo Egiogu.)
I was very impressed with the way Ajax was training at that time, and I couldn’t believe how big all the other players looked in comparison to this slight man. But Johan had such amazing technique and ability, he made it look so easy.
The influence he has had on the Ajax system is incredible – that same football philosophy he brought to Barcelona: “The more you keep the ball the less chance the opponent has to score.”
At the time I had no idea I would be training at that same place years later, with the also-influential Louis Van Gaal.
We had a kit man called Sjaak Wolf who would always make the dressing room a happy place for us kids, especially when he told us stories about Cruyff. He told us that he would tell Cruyff what type of boots he should wear, and then he would tell us the same thing. I thought if Cruyff used to listen to Sjaak, then I’ll definitely listen to him too.
In fact, I played my whole career on those same kind of studs. And I guess Sjaak was right, because I never had a problem with slippery turf.
I wish Johan all the best with the battle that lies ahead.