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 episode: Jan Wouters.
With Jan Wouters, the youth academy has gained a very experienced footballer with top-level knowledge. As a player, this footballer from Utrecht was a lump of granite and not afraid of the devil. The tactically strong midfielder was an indispensable link and booster for his teammates in 194 matches between 1986 and 1991. With Wouters in the team, Ajax won the national title in 1990 and added a European Cup to its trophy cabinet for the first time since 1973. Winning what was then European Cup II in 1987 was a highlight of Wouters' playing career. As was the European triumph with the Dutch team a year later. 'Jantje Beton', the nickname he was given for his toughness and intransigence, was a mainstay in the golden batch of Oranje internationals who won European championships.
At home at de Toekomst
This season, was the first for the former player and former Ajax head coach as assistant coach at Ajax Under 18. ''It's still great to be on the pitch with players and judge how they are doing. Very nice to be involved with young boys,'' Wouters told us at de Toekomst sports complex. ''To talk about football too. How the training is going, or how we can train in an other way. That always keeps you busy.''
Wouters feels at home at de Toekomst. The youth academy's flagship team's great performance will reinforce that feeling. Remaining in the UEFA Youth League over winter was secured and Ajax lost the least points of all teams in the Honour Division. The Amsterdammers are battling with peers PSV and AZ for the lead. Trainers Peereboom and Wouters complement each other perfectly in terms of age and experience. That might also be one of the driving forces behind the good performances.
While the youth is still playing for a few more weeks, national club football is at a standstill during the World Cup in Qatar. Between Under-18 training sessions, Wouters keeps a close eye on the Netherlands. ''I think the Netherlands is always among the favourites, along with five or six other countries including Brazil, Argentina, Germany and France. Those countries always matter. That is where we should be., especially given our World Cup history, and our three finals places. Although it depends on the form of the day how such a tournament goes, whether it will work or not. We don't have a bad line-up, pretty much all our internationals play for top clubs. I hope the Netherlands will grow in this tournament."
Top coaches and national team coaches
Wouters played with Ajacied under the current national team coach. Twice in fact. Louis van Gaal was Ajax's interim coach in two periods in the late 1980s (in varying formations with club-mates Spitz Kohn and Barry Hulshoff). Van Gaal was later appointed as Leo Beenhakker's replacement shortly after the start of the 1991/1992 season. Even before the winter break of the season in which Ajax won the UEFA Cup, Wouters made a transfer to Bayern Munich. ''There are no questions about Louis. He is an excellent coach and an excellent professional. As both club coach and national coach, he is among the best trainers we have had in the Netherlands.''
Wouters played both at his clubs (at FC Utrecht, PSV and Bayern Munich as well as Ajax) under absolute top coaches. The former international therefore looks back with great pleasure on his collaboration with Rinus Michels, Dick Advocaat, Leo Beenhakker and, of course, Johan Cruijff, among others. ''I have had the opportunity to work with fantastic trainers in my career. Very good trainers, from Han Berger at FC Utrecht to Rinus Michels and Dick Advocaat at the Dutch national team. In that sense, I have not been unhappy in national team coaches and trainers.''
What did Wouters take from the top coaches he worked with? The trainers and sometimes even club icons made him a better sportsman and person. ''You bring something different from everyone into your own career A coach has to have something to say. Louis certainly has that. Michels said the same thing but with slightly fewer words. With Michels, discipline also played an important role. You knew not to go too far with him. Another fantastic coach tactically was Dick Advocaat. He was very inspiring, too. Beenhakker is in the same league; he was successful at Ajax and Real Madrid. Also as national with Poland. He was a real people manager. I've only played with top coaches. Johan at Ajax, of course. Let's not forget him. He could talk about details in football fantastically, which made my game very different.''
Two European Championships and two World Cups
Wouters played two European Championships with the Netherlands and was present at as many World Cup finals. When he compares the tournaments, the one he won obviously stands. Now with the World Cup, how does he look back on the World Cups he himself took part in, the 1990 finals in Italy and four years later in the United States? ''Neither World Cup was unfortunately not a success. We lost twice to the eventual winner. Still, a World Cup is a great experience.''
''At the World Cup in 1990, I didn't hit a single ball properly myself. I was not in great shape. Neither were the other players in that selection. The preparation for that World Cup was also strange because it was not clear who would become national coach. Most players wanted for Cruijff, but it in the end we got Beenhakker. We had almost the same selection in 1990 as two years earlier, when we became European champions. That made our elimination in Italy extra disappointing. We had more to give, but somehow it didn't come out. At a big tournament you want to perform as well as possible. Unfortunately that didn't work out.''
'Unlucky loss to Brazil in 1994'
The Dutch team did advance a round four years later. At the World Cup in Italy, Germany was too strong in the eighth finals. In the United States, the Dutch were trounced by Brazil in the quarter-finals. ''When we played our first knockout match Ireland, I was suspended. We won that one 2-0. Dick should in fact have kept the line-up the same. But I was back against Brazil and played forward on Bebeto. That was not my position. I was 34 at the time and no longer the player I had been four years earlier. We lost Brazil with a lot of bad luck, from a free kick by Branco.
If we had gone into the extension we would have won it. I am convinced of that. We felt we were going to get Brazil. If that had succeeded we could have gone far.''
Despite the premature eliminations, Wouters enjoyed the tournaments at the very highest level of football. "As a teenager, I spent many hours in front of the TV watching all the World Cups. If you then play a final round like that yourself, you think: 'Cricky, I'm going to a World Cup too'. That is very much alive. You are nervous and tense for your first World Cup. After all, it is something you've never done. That tension was also there in 1994, although I had already been to a World Cup by then. At a final tournament, you start all over again and have to get through the group phase again.''
'Part of that is match tension'
''I was always very tense before a match as a player. But that tension were gone as soon as I walked onto the pitch for the warm-up. That feeling beforehand was never great. But that tension was just part of it. It didn't really matter whether I played a league match or a World Cup match. I still have some of that tension but not as intense as back then. You sympathise and still hope to win. If they play well, that's a bonus.''
Wouters regards his years playing with the Dutch national team as memorable chapters in a brilliant career. ''When I went from FC Utrecht to Ajax, everyone asked what I was doing there? If you then become an important player in the Dutch national team, you look back on that with pride. It's great to get to play for your country.''