Any footballer who has played for both Ajax and Liverpool at club level, and been part of a squad which reached the FIFA World Cup™ Final, would be justifiably pleased with their career to date. A sense of unfinished business, if not untapped potential, surrounds Ryan Babel, however, who returned for a second spell with the Dutch giants earlier this month.
The 25-year-old impressed at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup and made one substitute appearance at Germany 2006, before his precocious talent was displayed as the Netherlands triumphed at the UEFA European U-21 Championship the next year, with Babel scoring twice, including one in the final.
A move to Anfield followed but the forward endured three-and-a-half difficult, inconsistent years with the Reds which, by his own admission, stunted his development. In 2011, the Bundesliga and Hoffenheim became the next step on Babel’s journey, which has come full circle with a return to Amsterdam and the club where his career began.
“I'm very pleased to be back at Ajax, the club where it all started for me. It was definitely a dream to return to the club one day,” Babel explained to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview shortly after signing a season-long contract with Frank de Boer’s side.
“I’ve signed a one-year deal because I've analysed the past and seen that long contracts can disable you from making a decision if you want to make one. If I have a good year and Ajax are satisfied with me, we can always discuss a longer stay.
“Ajax have won the title the last two seasons and this season again we have a good squad to compete. I'm confident we can be competition for the other teams as well. Not much has changed since I left, only a lot of new faces obviously and a whole new staff.”
Fond memories of Anfield
A lack of change is likely to suit Babel, who has been utilised in a variety of different attacking positions for club and country, as he enters a crucial period for any footballer. He continued: “A footballer mostly has his best years between 25 and 29 so I don't think I have shown my full potential yet. We can’t all be Lionel Messi, even if we want to!
“I’ve played a number of positions up front but my best position now is the left. I always had the ambition to play as a striker, as I grew up like that in the youth academy of Ajax, but since I have been a pro player I never really got the chance to develop as a striker.”
That said, the forward clearly has no regrets about the path he has taken, praising the German top flight for the breadth of quality in the division, and particularly Liverpool, where he still owns a house. “I enjoyed my time in Germany, I definitely rate the league as it develops well and you have quite a lot of teams that play good football.
“I also had a great time in England playing for Liverpool. I think it could have been much greater if I was guided better but I have no regrets choosing to play for such a big club. I wish things could have been different but I still have a big connection with the club and the fans.
“Playing at Anfield is a different experience. The ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ anthem at the beginning of every home game is something you have to feel when you enter the pitch at Anfield. The best Anfield games were the Champions League evenings, for me, as the whole stadium gave a full energy to the team.”
Dutch recall desired
Although he was not afforded any playing time in South Africa, Babel was part of the Netherlands squad which reached the FIFA World Cup Final in 2010. Opportunities to represent the Oranje have been in short supply ever since, but the Ajax star is determined not to give up.
“It has been a while now since I've played in the Dutch national team. At the moment, I'm focusing on Ajax and want to do well for my club. Once you do well everything is possible again, in my opinion,” the forward concluded.
“Being part of the Dutch team that went all the way to the final in 2010 against Spain was a nice experience. Not to be played was a frustration as I think I could have added something to the team. It's a shame that some managers always make decisions based on a judgement from the outside rather than look what’s really good for the team.
“At this moment, the Dutch team has a whole new generation of young players and the manager has two years to put a great team together. I think there is enough time to get ourselves together for Brazil 2014.”