Babel rewarding Van Basten's faith
The youthful prowess of Ajax teenager Ryan Babel was writ large by events of 26 March 2005, the date of his debut for the Netherlands.
The international spotlight can be daunting for any new player, let alone an 18-year-old whose senior bow in club football had come only 13 months earlier. Yet Babel did not shrink under the glare - he did quite the opposite. Sent on as an early replacement for the injured Arjen Robben in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Romania in Bucharest, Babel rewarded the faith of Dutch coach Marco van Basten by scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win.
If the victory marked a significant stride on the road to Germany for Van Basten's team, it was also a huge step for the Amsterdam-born Babel. In becoming the Netherlands' youngest goalscorer for 68 years, he suggested there was real substance behind the hype surrounding this latest product of the Ajax academy.
Babel, 185cm tall and blessed with genuine pace, has been with the Amsterdam side since the age of 11. He graduated from their youth ranks in February 2004 when then Ajax coach Ronald Koeman handed him his debut just two months after his 17th birthday.
If Babel's rapid elevation was not exactly uncommon at a club renowned for giving youth its head, it was certainly recognition of the forward's precocious talents. The right-footed Babel can play both as central striker or as has been the case at Ajax this term as a wide attacker in a front three. His speed and trickery equip him to cause defenders problems in this latter role and, allied with his scoring threat, make him a real handful.
Nine months after making his Ajax bow, Babel registered his first goal for the team in a 5-0 league win against De Graafschap on 20 November 2004. By now a regular starter he ended the 2004/05 season with seven Eredivisie strikes to his name and, after the reward of a new contract last July, he began the current campaign in style with the winning goal in Ajax's 2-1 defeat of champions PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch Super Cup.
He was also on target in both legs of the UEFA Champions League qualifying victory over Brondby as Ajax qualified for the group stage, where Babel continued his development with five appearances. League goals have been harder to come by in this, his second full season, however, and by the turn of the year, he had just one effort to his name.
There is no doubting that Babel, like another Ajax youngster Hedwiges Maduro, has been a beneficiary of national coach Van Basten's youth-friendly selection policy and he has remained a regular in the Netherlands squad since his debut last March. He appeared three more times for his country in 2005, against Armenia, FYR Macedonia and Italy, and recorded his second international goal in the 3-1 home loss to the Italians in November.
He also gained important experience of international competition as a key member of the Netherlands side at last summer's FIFA World Youth Championship, scoring in the wins against Japan and Chile as the Dutch reached the last eight. Now the 19-year-old has his sights on the senior world showpiece in Germany in June. Claiming a place in the Netherlands' FIFA World Cup squad will not be easy but Babel appears up for the challenge.