Tales of Teams Past | Justin Kluivert: 'The bar was set so high'

Justin Kluivert Header
Justin Kluivert Header

Justin Kluivert made his debut for Ajax 1 at the age of seventeen. More than three years before that, in the 2013/2014 season, he was part of a remarkable group in the U15 that was overflowing with quality. With the former Ajax player, we go back to that period and discuss that fantastic season, his development towards Ajax 1, and a 'difficult' step. "It triggered me to work harder and increase my focus."


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Kluivert is doing well in the Premier League during his first season at AFC Bournemouth. "I’m doing well, and I like it here. I can't complain," he begins. He takes ample time for us right after his afternoon training in England. "This is nice, but you have to help me out a bit," he says, laughing. It turns out he needs no help at all. A little later, Kluivert lists them all. "A wonderful team, isn't it?"

Kluivert looks back at the photo. "Many guys have made it. I remember coaches used to say that only one or two players from each team would make it to professional football. I always looked around. I saw players like Matthijs de Ligt, Noa Lang, Donyell Malen, Ché Nunnely, Anderson López, and Navajo Bakboord. I thought: am I the one who's going to make it? I did have that stress back then."

The former Ajax player starts to smile when he comes to Dehninio Muringen, who is now playing in Estonia. "Great guy. He was the life of the party that every team needs. Together with Noa, a perfect match." His attention shifts to another player. "Deabeas, yes! Deabeas Owusu is becoming a star in China, and we have to keep an eye on him," Kluivert says about Owusu, who is now active at Zhejiang FC.

Kluivert was part of a deadly and lightning-fast attack that season. With Nunnely and Malen at his side, they won the cup against PSV, and the Ajax players were too strong for Feyenoord in the national final, winning 3-2. "If you would play in the Eredivisie with this forward line now, you are very dangerous. And it was already like that back then. I thought they were already a step ahead of me at that time. The bar was set so high, which worked well for me."

Turning Point
Bravado and swagger, in a good way. Ajax's U15 had that this season already. "That also belongs to Ajax. We always came onto the field with the same shoes and the shirts neatly tucked in. It was already 1-0 before we started," he laughs. "I dare say this is the best youth team I have played in. These were great times," Kluivert continues. "After this, everyone took a different path, and things moved quickly. The U15 was really a turning point."

After the highest U15 team, there was a selection, or at least that's how Kluivert felt it. "The top talents immediately moved to the U17; the rest had to leave or went to the second U16 team. That last one applied to me, and I found it quite difficult because Matthijs, Donyell, Navajo, and Ché went to the U15. They got to play on the main field. I wanted that, too, and it ultimately drove me at that time. It sharpened me and Noa after this season, and it worked."

"I changed after the U15 from a little boy, as I am in the team photo, into a young man," Kluivert says about the important phase he entered. "I paid more attention to the mental aspect: I ate well, slept enough, and got treated if I had any discomfort. They had patience with me. I had to discover my body, and when all the aches were gone, things moved very quickly. Debuting in Ajax 1 became my only and ultimate goal."

That happened not much later. At seventeen, Kluivert debuted in Ajax 1 away at PEC Zwolle. "I know what I can do and never give up, even now. That comes from this time because I certainly wasn’t the best back then."

Kluivert quickly progressed to the first team as a youngster and played over fifty official matches in the first team. He did not realise his early breakthrough at the time. "You know what it was: in the youth, I was used to becoming champion every year and playing finals. And in my first season at Ajax 1, I was immediately in the final of the UEFA Europa League. It felt 'normal'. Do you understand what I mean? But afterwards, I thought: wow, this was very special, and I am so happy I experienced that. Maybe it will never happen again. But from the youth, as an Amsterdam boy, in Ajax 1. It was so beautiful."

Ajax School
The enthusiasm in his voice is noticeable when he talks about his time in Amsterdam. The best part? "That hat-trick at home against Roda JC. We were behind and won 5-1, partly because of my three goals. To do that at such a young age is a highlight for me."

Blossomed in Bournemouth, he still reaps the benefits of his time at Ajax, says the attacker. "The discipline, on and off the field, I got from my youth in Amsterdam. Do you know what it is? The Ajax school is appreciated and recognised literally everywhere. In rondos, players often say: ‘You’re from Ajax, right?’ Those kinds of things." From England, Kluivert closely follows his club. "Of course, I always said: Ajax is my club. It pains me how this season has gone, but it will be okay."

As the conversation nears its end, Kluivert picks up 'his' Ajax U15 again. His eyes move to the top left: coach Peter van der Veen. "The way he talked to me was so motivating. He made me who I am now. He taught me what I needed to take the next step in the following years. His interaction with the group was so good."

"The step from this great team to the U17-2 triggered me to work harder and increase my focus. Because a few years later, I was standing in Stockholm. I don’t shy away from difficult moments but embrace them. That’s how I can grow, and that happened after this year, too. That mindset I have now indirectly comes from this time," Kluivert concludes gratefully.

Ajax U15 2013/2014:
Staand: Peter van der Veen, Rob Stol, Noah van Geenen, Victor van der Linde , Ruben Hoogenhout, Nigel Bouman, Lars Kramer, Navajo Bakboord, Donyell Malen, Taipio Wolfjager, Ron Robijn.

Zittend: Arquinio Bel, Justin Kluivert, Rayan El Azrak, Ché Nunnely, Matthijs de Ligt, Anderson López, Ari Halou, Gianni Jesserun, Noa Lang, Dehninio Muringen, Deabeas Owusu

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