This article was originally published in The Guardian. Written by Ed Aarons.
“I was at school and they called me to tell me I had to get the training ground because they wanted me to travel with the first team,” remembers Mario Melchiot. “It was quite impressive because I had never been asked before. And there I was making my way to the Champions League final. Van Gaal was a bit like that …”
It’s now 23 years since the defender who would go on to play for Chelsea, Birmingham and Wigan, travelled to Rome for the 1996 final against Juventus, watching on from the stands as Louis van Gaal’s reigning champions were beaten in a penalty shootout. Just 18, Melchiot had already been at Ajax for a decade and was called up as cover for the injured Frank de Boer despite not having made his senior debut.
“I was either going to play or be on the bench but Frank recovered in the end,” he adds. “At Ajax, we all play the same system through to the first team and you know what your job is. So if your development has been handled in the right way then it doesn’t matter if you have never played for the first team because you know the job. That’s why they say, ‘Bring them up, let him show what he can do.’ The best thing Ajax gives you is being able to adjust to every occasion that comes towards you.”
That certainly applies to the current crop of young players who have propelled the four-time winners to the semi-finals for the first time since 1997, seeing off Real Madrid and Juventus along the way. Melchiot was part of the side that lost 6-2 on aggregate to the Italians in the last four a year after their meeting in the final, scoring his first Ajax goal in the 4-1 second-leg defeat in Turin against a side containing Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero.
“That game set me up for my career,” he reflects. “When you play against the best and you show that you can cope it means so much. After the game Van Gaal said, ‘Now you are officially a player who can handle the pressure.’ That was really important for me.”
He has lived in Los Angeles since retiring six years ago, but remains close to Ajax’s chief executive, Edwin van der Sar, and spent time with the squad in January when they visited Orlando during the winter break. While also admitting his admiration for the star midfielder Frenkie de Jong, it is the teenage captain Matthijs de Ligt – who scored with a brilliant header against Juventus in the second leg of the quarter-final – who has most impressed the former defender
“He has no fear. Probably the best thing that could have happened to him was when he was put into the national team at the age of 17 and he made a mistake, everyone said he wasn’t good enough. That moment made him understand how fine the line is between success and failure. But look at him now.”
Having worked as a pundit for Fox Sports since moving to the US, Melchiot made his directing debut last year with a series of documentaries narrated by Gordon Ramsay called Phenoms, which followed emerging young players who were trying to make it to their first World Cup. Wary of exposing their young captain to the media spotlight too early, Ajax asked him not to feature De Ligt in the film – a decision their former player “totally understood” at the time. “They have protected him really well,” Melchiot adds.
As well as his commitments with Fox, he has recently started The People’s Podcast, which invites the public to set the agenda on any football issue they want to discuss. Melchiot also enjoyed a short stint as an actor, among others appearing in the mystery crime-thriller The Man in 3B and following the likes of Eric Cantona and Frank Leboeuf as former players who have turned to the silver screen.Advertisement
“A few players have tried it because entertainers are always impressed by other entertainers and it is something you can relate to,” he says. “I tried it and it was the best thing I could have done. I was always mesmerised by movies. As soon as I retired I went to acting school for two years. I would have loved to have become a traditional actor but I didn’t get to that level. As an actor you really get to know yourself better – sometimes as a player you are just living your life from game to game but as an actor you have more time alone to prepare.”
Melchiot was no stranger to the stage having joined with Ajax teammates Dean Gorré and Benni McCarthy to release The Midas Touch in 1998 – a remix of the 80s classic by Midnight Star.
“We just rapped over it,” he explains. “To be fair, I don’t have the greatest voice so singing definitely wasn’t an option. But I did it as well as I could. Benni had already had a No1 song at that time so he was more comfortable with it I think.”
After moving to Stamford Bridge on a free transfer in 1999, Melchiot broke a foot twice in his debut season but still ended up winning the FA Cup under Gianluca Vialli. But while he has sympathy for Maurizio Sarri, the man who made almost 150 appearances before leaving for Birmingham a month after José Mourinho’s appointment in 2004 is fearful for the future at his former club.
“It’s sad to see what Sarri is going through. If they don’t make it into the Champions League then the transfer ban will really hang over their heads. That is going to make it hard to bring in a new coach because they will always want to sign their own players. Maybe they feel like they will have to give Sarri a little bit more time but when I saw the game against Burnley last week, it really wasn’t a performance that you would expect from Chelsea.”
Tottenham’s side on Tuesday could contain four players schooled at Ajax, in Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sánchez, who also featured in Melchiot’s documentary. Yet while Melchiot believes their influence makes Mauricio Pochettino’s side another major hurdle in this season’s fairytale run, he expects De Jong, De Ligt and co to take it all their stride once again.
“They will be very confident and believe they can win. You can see they have that confidence within them and that is what I learned [there] from the age of nine.
“As soon as you put on the red and white jersey you are taught to run on the field with your head up and believing that you are already 1-0 up because you are proud of who you are playing for. They have been learning that since that age. That’s why they play like that.”