Rafael Van der Vaart is living proof that the Ajax academy has not lost its touch.
For decades, Ajax would replace departed players with exceptional graduates from their youth ranks and everything went on as successfully as before.
However, when the likes of Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf left after victory in the 1995 Champions League Final, the Amsterdam club were forced to give up competing with the giants of Europe.
From that moment on, Ajax talent began to move abroad at ever-younger ages and the pool ran dry. Now, it appears to be filling up once more following the emergence of Van der Vaart.
Given his chance by coach Co Adriaanse, the 18-year-old has become a regular starter on the left side of midfield, demoting veteran Richard Witschge to the bench.
Adriaanse is clearly convinced by the teenager’s pace and attacking flair, and youth team coach John van’t Schip is similarly persuaded. ‘If I had to pick one youngster who was going to make it, I would have picked him,’ declares the former Ajax player. ‘There was never a day when I had to motivate him. Whether it rained, snowed or the sun was shining, he never complained.’
Van der Vaart learned his football on a caravan park in Heemskerk, where he still lives with his parents. He developed his skills by shooting at beer bottles, and after playing for local club De Kennemers, was spotted at the age of 10 by Ajax.
A lot is expected of Van der Vaart. One magazine has already compared him to Johan Cruyff, and the received wisdom is that the youngster will play an important part in the national team’s future.
At the moment, national coach Louis Van Gaal does not want to rush him, but on the other hand, Van der Vaart is already representing Holland at three different levels: Under-19, Under-20 and Under-21.
‘Things are going very well,’ says the midfielder. ‘I’m not afraid of a setback. Adriaanse and Van Gaal have developed a special programme for me. That means I don’t have to play all the matches. But even if something goes wrong, I’m sure I can work it out.’
If a new talent is performing well at Ajax, it is only a matter of time before he attracts the attention of leading European clubs. Barcelona and Manchester United are already in the queue for Van der Vaart, but they may have to wait some time.
‘It’s nice to hear that top foreign clubs are interested in me, but I’m staying with Ajax for the next couple of years,’ he says. ‘It’s better for me because I want to improve my game, and the best club to help me do that is Ajax.’
An encouraging sign of maturity from the next Dutch superstar.
Born February 11, 1983, in Heemstede