“That’s life in Dutch football,” lamented Utrecht coach Ton du Chatinier recently, after he had just learnt that some of Europe’s biggest names were sniffing around the club’s exciting young striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel. It was a familiar scenario given that foreign powerhouses had long been snapping up local talent, with the Eredivisie seen as a stepping stone to greater things.
“This league is ideal for helping young players grow and develop their game,” Luuk de Jong, the forward who has emerged as the revelation of the current season, told FIFA.com. “When you’re lucky enough to play for a club like Twente, you can learn so much in the Champions League. Here, youngsters are given a chance.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Johan van Geijn, international coordinator with the Netherlands Football Association (KNVB): “The Dutch school is renowned the world over for its strengths and the quality of its training methods.”
I’m not ready yet. This league is ideal for continuing to improve. I want to follow the example of Dirk Kuyt, and he waited until he was at his best before leaving.
Those methods have proved so effective that not only have Dutch clubs produced some of Europe’s most gifted individuals, they have often developed more than one talent within the same family. After the Witschge brothers, the Koemans, the De Boers and the Van de Kerkhofs, it is now the turn of Luuk and Siem De Jong.
Ajax forward Siem, 22, bolstered his reputation with ten goals last term and has enjoyed a return to form since Frank de Boer took the reins at the Amsterdam ArenA. Meanwhile, 20-year-old Luuk has notched eight times for Twente this campaign and flourished under coach Michel Preud’homme, who has recast him in a playmaking role.
Recently selected by Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk for the upcoming friendly against Austria on 9 February, the younger of the two brothers is the first to have received recognition from the senior team, even though both have served at U-19 and U-21 level.
“I’d love to play with Luuk,” said Siem. “He’d complement me perfectly up front as a No10, given his ability to keep possession. I’ve never been jealous of Siem. On the contrary, he’s inspired and motivated me. He’s opened my eyes.”
The Twente prodigy also feels a debt of gratitude to Preud’homme: “He let me know he was counting on me right from the start, whereas last season I didn’t get to play much. But I learnt a lot with Steve McClaren, and I’m still progressing now. I need to defend more in this new role, although that allows me to have an impact over more of the pitch.”
At Utrecht, meanwhile, Van Wolfswinkel has had to cope with being nicknamed the new Marco van Basten since the age of 18. Despite the obvious burden of expectation, the marksman has seemed untroubled by the comparison, while his eye for goal has attracted scouts from a host of English Premier League outfits. The 22-year-old has stepped up a whole new level this season too, registering eight times in 12 UEFA Europa League outings – including a hat-trick against Celtic – and celebrating a first international cap in last August’s friendly with Ukraine.
On the domestic stage, Van Wolfswinkel has plundered 11 Eredivisie goals this term, ten of which came in Utrecht’s first 11 fixtures. Good in the air, quick despite his 6ft1in frame, blessed with solid technique and absolutely calm in front of goal, the youngster is living up to the promise he showed for Vitesse before switching clubs in 2009. Du Chatinier feels his talented striker is not yet ready for England or Spain, but the player himself disagrees, hoping to follow in the footsteps of another former Utrecht icon Dirk Kuyt and test himself in more illustrious surroundings.
This league is ideal for helping young players grow and develop their game. Here, youngsters are given a chance.
Another player possibly destined for great things is Feyenoord winger Georginio Wijnaldum, who has managed to shine despite a disappointing season for his relegation-threatened team. The youngest player to have contested an Eredivisie match - he made his debut for the Rotterdam side at 16 - two years later he was knocking back interest from some of the most ambitious clubs on the continent. He has been steadily rising through the ranks in the international arena as well, having turned out for the Netherlands at U-17, U-19 and U-21 levels.
First taught the game at Sparta Rotterdam, Wijnaldum was brought on board by city rivals Feyenoord at 14 in 2004. Erwin Koeman decided he was ready for league action in April 2007 and the former Oranje midfielder was instantly proved right as the debutant took the man of the match honours. His maiden league goal followed in December, with another eight over the next two seasons and four more in 21 matches this term.
A gifted dribbler noted for his pace and liveliness, Wijnaldum has become a key figure for the U-21s, and he will now be desperate to help save his side from relegation. Beyond that, foreign shores beckon, although the player who dreamed of being a gymnast or an acrobat as a child feels in no particular rush to move on. “I’m not ready yet,” he said. “This league is ideal for continuing to improve. I want to follow the example of Dirk Kuyt, and he waited until he was at his best before leaving.”
The issue of when to move on could soon be occupying Jody Lukoki as well, the Congo DR native having found himself in demand across the Eredivisie before making a single professional appearance. The jet-heeled Ajax winger is the latest gem off the club’s famous production line and, at 18, has already been given a chance to prove his worth by Frank de Boer. He has made his mark, too, performing a cheeky nutmeg on Feyenoord defender Tim de Cler in the closing seconds of the traditional rivals’ meeting last month.
The incident brought howls of appreciation raining down from the ArenA stands, but De Boer was less impressed. Perhaps there could be no better indication that these great prospects still have plenty to learn before they evolve into great players.