AMSTERDAM — Matthijs de Ligt knows everyone outside of Ajax is talking about his future and which European superpower will secure his much-coveted signature.
“Am I annoyed by the rumours? No. Bored? A little bit,” De Ligt tells ESPN. “But it doesn’t matter to me if there’s an article about where I should go or what I should do. It doesn’t matter, at all.”
He is only 19 and already captaining Ajax. He was named European Golden Boy in December, and as he talks on a pitch at their training ground, he is excited about the future. But while he is content, the rest of Europe talks about him. That morning’s Mundo Deportivo had photographs of Frenkie de Jong and De Ligt with the headline “De Jong Sube… Y De Ligt Baja” — the Spanish newspaper speculated Barcelona were in pole position for De Jong but had fallen behind Juventus in the race for him. Every day, there’s a new club: Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United have all been mentioned in the past week. (Then, on Wednesday, Barcelona announced that they’d signed De Jong as of July 1.)
Clubs coveting Ajax’s talent is nothing new. It dates back to Johan Cruyff, who eventually moved to Barcelona in 1973. Then there was the chase for Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Edwin van der Sar, Wesley Sneijder, Christian Eriksen and so on. Not only is their academy impressive; so too is their eye for signing low-profile foreign talent like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez and developing them into superstars. Now it is De Ligt’s turn.
Talking to De Ligt, it’s easy to forget he is a teenager, as age matters little at Ajax. If a player is good enough, he will be given a chance with the first team. It is a place anchored on progression. They have this mantra of the next challenge being one pitch away at their academy and training ground, called De Toekomst (“The Future”).
Every side, from the under-9s to the first team, train here. There are 12 pitches stretched out, a patch of green in the middle of motorways 5 miles from the Dam Square, the historical center of Amsterdam. Small grandstands hug the pitches where the teams play competitively, with a concrete hub — laced in Ajax nostalgia — in the middle where players change, eat and learn. Talent is rewarded with opportunity and every year the academy offers up another future superstar to the first team.
De Ligt has been at Ajax since he was 9 years old. “This is my home… it’s really nice,” he says. It is a chilly morning, the type where a cold wind manages to somehow invade your clothing. De Ligt has just finished training; sitting in his gold Ajax tracksuit top and shorts, he seems untroubled by the temperature and politely turns down the offer of a coat. He talks about the excitement of facing Real Madrid in the Champions League knockout stages and the chance to win the Dutch Eredivisie.
Conversation then switches to everyday Amsterdam life outside of the training ground walls, and he hears about how we had nearly been hit countless times by self-destructive folk on bicycles in the city centre. He laughs, his face suddenly reverting to his teenage self, and explains that it must be tourists, as locals are far too streetwise to nearly wipe out a bunch of confused visitors. Then as conversation switches back to football, he returns to the face of a player worth €70 million and everything that comes with being one of the best young players in the world.
“Everybody is saying something new and you realise the newspapers are always saying something as it has to be interesting for somebody,” De Ligt says. One day Ajax will sell De Ligt, who is rumored to be off in the summer, as they sold De Jong but the club, and the players, aren’t fazed by any outside noise. Ajax have such confidence in their academy they know they will be able to produce another player to step into the void. Losing a superstar is hardly ideal, but it’s not a make-or-break moment for the club. In fact, it’s their business model: Develop the next generation of stars and sell them to help fund the next wave, making the process self-sustainable.
It is an annual challenge to navigate, but training just a pitch away from the first team will be the next De Ligt and the next De Jong itching to step up. And we will be back here in five years asking them the same question.