‘More Amsterdam than Belgian’

‘More Amsterdam than Belgian’

There’s a reason that the Dutch journalistic world, joined by a few Belgian colleagues, have been lining up during the last few months for an interview with Jan Vertonghen. Ajax’s 25 year old captain has been the catalyst behind the team’s current successes.

It may be the last opportunity to speak to the Belgian, considering that there’s a significant chance that Vertonghen will be playing elsewhere after the summer, at another club, in a bigger competition. “The Netherlands, like Belgium, is purely an academy country. Players who aim to reach the highest level shouldn’t stay here their whole life.”

Vertonghen realizes that he’s spent almost half of his football career in Amsterdam. These thoughts go through his mind, as he’s now at a crossroads in his career. “After six years with my amateur club, VK Tielrode, and another four at Germinal Beerschot, this is my ninth season at Ajax”, sums up the Belgian defender. “I’m probably more of an Amsterdam native than Belgian. I grew up in this city and built up my social life here. Everything happens in Amsterdam. I live here, my girlfriend is from here, my friends, Ajax, everything. I don’t know anything else anymore.”
When he returns to Belgium, which doesn’t happen very often, it’s for a family birthday. Or for interlands with the national team. Does Amsterdammer Vertonghen ever feel like he’s playing an away match when he enters the Koning Boudewijn Stadium in Brussels with the Red Devils? “Yes, sometimes”, he smiles. “Belgians don’t know me as well as you do in the Netherlands. That’s obviously because they didn’t see me grow up in their own competition. I was already gone by that time.”

He may not have been a super talent as a teenager, who held his own among the big guys, but he was a player who needed to mature, like a red wine which, with time, becomes fuller and better. A defender’s trait. There was that curious goal scored for Jong Ajax, in a cup match against Cambuur, in which he, unwittingly, received his first taste of fame. The Fries team played the ball out of bounds in order to allow for an injury to be treated. Vertonghen wanted to return to ball according to the unwritten rule, but his ‘played back’ ball to keeper Peter van der Vlag disappeared into the goal. The next day, everyone was talking about it, at the water cooler at work, at school, at the gas station.

The promise of six and a half years ago is now Ajax’s figurehead. Jan Vertonghen is in the spotlight as being one of the pillars of a team that made a remarkable comeback to win the championship, but also because of his outstanding form during the past months. And then there’s the rumoured interest from big international clubs, and talk of his departure this summer. Every journalist with Ajax in his or her portfolio wanted to have their questions answered during these last weeks: the interview requests piled up in the club’s press department.

But Vertonghen can still enjoy his relative anonymity, he claims. He’s something of an atypical footballer, one who reads a book once in a while, who enjoys playing a pub quiz, and who goes to the theatre with his girlfriend, Sophie. There in the cultural world, nobody knows who he is, because football isn’t a priority there. It’s wonderful, at least sometimes. “You won’t hear me saying that that world is better or nicer than the football world, but, personally, I like to be able to talk about other things sometimes, and see different faces.”

Back to football. Ajax’s captain has only praise for his coaches and their commitment, both in good and bad times. “Frank de Boer works according to Ajax’s vision and never veered away from that, even when things were tough for us. It took a lot a patience to get the right style of play implemented; putting pressure when you lose possession, transitioning quickly when you have possession, and the right position play that belongs with that. We do all of that now and we have De Boer to thank for that.”

He turned 25 about one week ago. Regardless of his age, his maturity, both as a person and as an athlete, make Vertonghen ready for new chapters in his life: a different country, a different club, a different city, a different environment. “You have to go if you feel you’re ready”, he says. “If that’s at 21 years old or 25, it doesn’t matter. Age isn’t an issue. As a football player, I feel ready for that now.”

As much as Ajax supporters would hate to see their captain go, they’ll also recognize that this is how the Eredivisie works. Every year, the competition’s strongest players leave for bigger, more prestigious competitions. “That’s reality”, says Vertonghen. “The Netherlands makes fantastic players, the best in the world. But the country is simply too small to be able to compete with Germany, England, Spain and Italy. There’s so much more money there. And actually, money is quality, and the other way around. Ajax would probably also like to get a player like Neymar. But it’s simple: the world doesn’t work like that. The Netherlands, like Belgium, is purely an academy country. Players who aim to reach the highest level shouldn’t stay here their whole life.”