Throughout its illustrious history, players from 51 nationalities have appeared for Ajax. Amazing players, many of whom have also played for their country. Their country is now playing in the finals with a whole new generation of footballers. Now that the 2022 World Cup is underway, we think this is a great time to hear from some of our former players once again. In this first episode: Joey Didulica.
"I am very much looking forward to the World Cup," Didulica said from Australia. "I am in favour of Croatia and 'Oranje', as the Netherlands is the birth country of my three children Angelina, Luca and Nicolas. They are very proud of that."
Happiness for the future
Didulica came to Ajax via Australian club Melbourne Knights in 1999. He was loaned by Ajax to Germinal Beerschot Antwerp in the 2001/2002 season. On 15 December 2001, the goalkeeper made his debut in Ajax's A-team under Ronald Koeman. He defended Ajax's goal in 16 league matches and four UEFA Champions League games.
Although the former Ajax, Austria Wien and AZ goalkeeper himself has two final rounds to his name with the Croatians, he played for Australian selection in his younger years. "I was supposed to compete with Australia in the 2000 Olympics," Didulica says of one of the coincidences that defined his life. "However, a week before, I broke my leg and could not compete in the Olympics. At the time, that was very unfortunate, but it turned out to be fortunate for the future."
Because that also allowed him the possibility to play for Croatia. They knew that there too. During his time as an Ajax player, from 1999 to 2003, the Croatian national coach came to Amsterdam to talk to both him and Zlatan about whether they wanted to play for Croatia. "Zlatan had a Croatian mother, I had a Croatian father. In Australia, we were part of a Croatian enclave. It was like a mini Croatia and during the national anthem I really felt like a Croat. Zlatan chose Sweden. If we had had him there we might have become world champions," he says, laughing.
'After one international you've made it as a footballer'
His Croatian heart beat faster when he got to make his debut on 28 April 2004. "Of course against Macedonia. I say of course because in my hometown of Geelong, they were the biggest rivals of us Croats. It had to be that way I guess."
Croatia won 1-0. After this he only played three more international matches, but was part of the squad that competed at the 2004 European Championship and 2006 World Cup. "There is no better feeling than representing your country at that kind of final tournament. It is so special. If your country chooses you to represent them there. That's so beautiful. The fact that I only played four internationals doesn't matter. One would have been enough. Then you have made it as a footballer. It's a dream come true. I also tell my children 'dream big', because if I can become a Croatian international from Geelong, Australia, then anything is possible. I hope they listen to me."
During the 2006 World Cup, Croatia happened to be in the group with Australia. "And there, of course, I knew all those guys. There were friends in that team. Viduca, Skoko. They did not blame me for choosing Croatia. They also said that if they had been in the same situation, they would have made the same choice."
When a player is selected for his country, it does something to him, Didulica knows from experience: "My status increased, you enjoyed more respect as an international and you yourself had more belief and motivation. Yet it was not easy, because although I felt Croatian, I also felt like an outsider in that squad. In fact, I didn't feel at home anywhere. I think it is the same if a Turkish or Moroccan player were to play for the Netherlands or a Dutch Moroccan for Morocco. I have empathy for them. The lost feeling did not affect performance. That deeper sense of Croatia was important. The country that had seen so much war, in which so many had died. You wanted to make people proud through football."
'Louis is allowed to hold up that Cup'
Joey would also be when proud if Louis van Gaal held up the cup. "He has won everything as a coach except a world title with his country. Let him win that one. I also like the Dutch 3-5-2 playing system with lots of movement; really attractive football. But of course I see Croatia as the favourite. Captain Modric is 37 but can still play football so incredibly well. It is a top team. They were not finalists at the previous World Cup for nothing. But I also think Brazil has a good chance too."