Justin Kluivert Emerges from Father's Shadow to Give the Netherlands Hope

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 21, 2018


If Justin Kluivert makes his debut for the Netherlands in Friday's friendly against England at Amsterdam's Johan Cruyff ArenA, he will be taking the next step on a journey that began in earnest just across the road on a tiny five-a-side pitch in the autumn of 2008.

The "boardingpitch," as it is informally known at Ajax, is a small, artificial grass pitch flanked by rebound boards that stands tight against the northeastern corner of Stadion De Toekomst, home of the Ajax reserve team, at the heart of the Amsterdam club's De Toekomst training centre. The Johan Cruyff ArenA (as the Amsterdam ArenA was renamed last October) looms in the near distance, a 10-minute walk away beyond the steady hum of traffic on the S111 road.

It was to this pitch that Kluivert, then aged nine, would report at 7:30 every Monday evening for intensive speed and dribbling drills with Ajax academy coach Ruben Jongkind. He would be joined by team-mates Donyell Malen and Bobby Adekanye, who are now on the books at PSV Eindhoven and Liverpool, respectively.

Over the course of their time in Ajax's under-9 and under-10 teams, the trio would be drilled on their movement and agility in weekly 45-minute sessions with Jongkind, a former triathlete, who taught them how to run on the balls of their feet and worked to make their stride patterns more compact.

The tailored approach—individual coaches assigned to small, talented sets of players—would form a central component of the Cruyff Plan, which Jongkind and Wim Jonk, the former head of the Ajax academy, helped to implement following Johan Cruyff's return to the club as a technical adviser in early 2011.

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 18: Justin Kluivert of Ajax celebrates 1-3 during the Dutch Eredivisie  match between Sparta v Ajax at the Sparta Stadium Het Kasteel on March 18, 2018 in Rotterdam Netherlands (Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images)
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Jongkind recalls a lot of laughter when he casts his mind back to those Monday evenings on the boardingpitch with Kluivert, Malen and Adekanye, but what shines through most strongly is Kluivert's dedication to his craft.

"What I notice all the time when I dive back into my memory is that he always wanted to win," Jongkind told Bleacher Report.

"I made all kinds of games, because you have to make a little bit of competition out of it with small kids, and he always wanted to win those games. Even if it was eight o'clock in the evening, he still wanted to win and he'd always ask, 'Am I doing it correctly? Can I improve?'

"Already at a very young age, he was very streetwise. Even as a small boy, he was asking himself, 'How can I get the most out of this session?'"

As the son of Patrick Kluivert, one of Ajax's most famous sons, Justin Kluivert attracted attention from the day he joined the club at the age of eight, but even with the huge burden of his father's legacy to live up to, he has made remarkably rapid progress.

A right-footed left-winger, Kluivert has always sought to drift infield onto his stronger foot, and when he hit 14, Jongkind and Jonk began to worry that he had become too predictable. Their solution was to field him in different positions—right wing, central midfield—in order to take him outside his comfort zone and force him to develop an ability to move the ball onto his left foot as well as his right.

By the age of 16, he had become a much more well-rounded player, and it was clear that he would not have to wait long for his first-team debut. Footage of his exploits in the youth teams, such as a stupendous solo goal he scored against Feyenoord's under-16s in January 2016, only served to fuel excitement about the very special talent with the very famous father.

Peter Bosz gave Kluivert his debut.
Peter Bosz gave Kluivert his debut.VI-Images/Getty Images

He was given his first-team debut by Peter Bosz in January last year, scoring his first goal away to Excelsior in March, and produced some eye-catching displays to help Ajax reach the final of the Europa League in Stockholm, where Kluivert watched from the bench as they lost 2-0 to Manchester United.

He experienced his first setback in October when, having started the campaign playing on the right flank, he lost his place in the side, with new coach Marcel Keizer preferring to use German winger Amin Younes in Kluivert's favoured position on the left. When Younes succumbed to a knee injury, Kluivert seized the opportunity greedily, celebrating his return to the side with a magnificent hat-trick of right-footed strikes—his first treble in senior football—in a 5-1 win over Roda JC. The 18-year-old has started Ajax's last 17 Eredivisie matches, and his goal tally for the campaign stands at seven.

Sander Zeldenrijk, chief editor of the popular fanzine Ajax Life, says that although Kluivert has only been on the first-team scene for a year, there is already a "chemistry" between him and the club's fans.

"He's very popular," Zeldenrijk says. "If your father scored the winning goal in the Champions League final, that gives you a good start, but he has had to prove himself as well. His father stood in the stands [as a fan] and Justin is the same—they have Ajax in their blood. He's only ever played for Ajax. The fans see him as a child of the club."

Kluivert clearly has a long way to go to emulate the achievements of his father, who settled the 1995 Champions League final against AC Milan when he was the same age his son is now, but by scoring a hat-trick in the Eredivisie, Kluivert the winger has already achieved something that Kluivert the striker never did.

Justin's father, Patrick, scored the winning goal in the 1995 Champions League final.
Justin's father, Patrick, scored the winning goal in the 1995 Champions League final.Luca Bruno/Associated Press/Associated Press

Comparisons between the pair are as inevitable as they are unhelpful, but Justin Kluivert wears them lightly. He proudly sports the family name on the back of his Ajax No. 45 shirt, having eschewed the possibility of using his first name instead, and says that talk of his father's feats only makes him more determined to leave his own mark on the game.

"I like it when I'm compared to my dad," he told the UEFA website in 2016. "He had a great career and I hope to have one, too."

His father aside, the Dutch player to whom Kluivert is most often compared is his fellow winger Arjen Robben, but his hat-trick against Roda reminded Jongkind of another Ajax academy graduate.

"Sometimes he reminds me of Christian Eriksen," Jongkind says. "Justin can improve still—he's still way below Eriksen—but he shoots with the same accuracy sometimes. His shooting with a curved ball is very, very good and he's able to finish with both feet, which is very rare."

For Zeldenrijk, the 18-year-old's cocksure demeanour and steely determination call to mind Wesley Sneijder, the most celebrated De Toekomst alumnus of the past 20 years.

"Of course, you cannot compare them, because they're two different players," Zeldenrijk says. "But in terms of focus, mentality and wanting to succeed, Sneijder had it more at this stage, but the gap between them is not that big.

"If you speak to [Kluivert] face-to-face and you look him in the eye, he has this bravura. He speaks with his mouth, but also with his feet. Sometimes players speak with their mouth, but you cannot see it in the feet. Justin plays with his feet as well. That's something they like in Amsterdam."

At international level, Sneijder has had to make way for the new generation of players represented by Kluivert. The 33-year-old midfielder, who joined Qatari club Al Gharafa in January, announced his international retirement earlier this month following a visit from new national coach Ronald Koeman. Robin van Persie was overlooked for Koeman's first squad, while Robben retired from international football in October. Kluivert received his first call-up, along with four other uncapped players.

Kluivert training with the national team
Kluivert training with the national teamSoccrates Images/Getty Images

Friday's game against England, which is followed by a friendly against Portugal in Geneva, represents a reset point for the Dutch national team after their back-to-back failures in qualifying for Euro 2016 and this summer's World Cup. Koeman says he is building "a new Oranje."

It is a little under 14 years since Patrick Kluivert won the last of his 79 international caps in a 1-0 friendly defeat by the Republic of Ireland in June 2004, the best years of his career already behind him at the age of 27 after six seasons of diminishing returns at Barcelona.

His son knows that he, too, will have to leave Ajax one day, and he has already taken steps to prepare himself for the next phase of his career. He has hired Mino Raiola as his agent and cast inviting looks in the direction of the leading clubs in England and Spain in an interview with Helden magazine (via Goal).

Patrick Kluivert urged his son to spend another year at Ajax when speaking to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser (via FourFourTwo), and there is a common consensus in Amsterdam that Justin, who is under contract until 2019, would be best served by getting another full season of first-team football behind him before flying the nest.

For now, at least, Amsterdam remains his playground.


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