When Toby Alderweireld’s father would drive him back from Antwerp to Amsterdam on a Sunday night, from his safe family life in Belgium to the unfamiliar challenge of Holland’s finest football academy, his teenage son would sit next to him, silently crying tears of resentment.
Ajax was the making of Alderweireld, just as it was of Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen. Or for Davinson Sanchez, for just one season before he came to Spurs. But back in 2004, when a 15-year-old Alderweireld joined the club, it was the last place he wanted to be.
Alderweireld has always been proud of his roots, and he has the tattoos to prove it. He has one on his left arm that says, in English: “Each day I come closer to the home where I was born”. He never wanted to leave Antwerp and he is looking forward to the time - now not too far away - when he will retire from professional football and move back there. He has another tattoo of the names of his two brothers, Steve and Sven. And another, of Antwerp’s famous Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren cathedral that means so much to him.
All of which shows why it was so difficult for the young Alderweireld to leave that life behind.
“Moving to Amsterdam was really difficult for me, a hell,” Alderweireld told Kristof Terreur of Belgian newspaper HLN later in his career. “Some think it's fantastic to be away from home, but not me. I am very attached to my family. As a 15-year-old, you cannot prepare yourself for that either. When you sign for Ajax, you are on a cloud, but after three months you realise ‘I will never be home again. I shed a lot of tears.”
Alderweireld’s parents would watch him play for his Ajax youth team on a Saturday afternoon, then drive him home to Antwerp afterwards. They would spend 24 hours together as a family before that painful journey back to Amsterdam. “In the beginning, the drive back to Amsterdam was a real disaster,” he told HLN. “I was angry because I had to go back. My dad and I said nothing to each other. I stared out of the window, sometimes crying. Occasionally we stopped at the McDonalds, halfway along, in Meerkerk. A hamburger was the only thing that could cheer me up.”
There were plenty of moments when Alderweireld wanted to give it all up and return home, when his father had to tell him that starting a new school again in Belgium would not be so simple. When his father could no longer drive him he would have to take the cramped train instead, standing room only. It was only when he learned to drive himself that he had more control over his life. “I can now look back philosophically on that period,” he reflected. “I am happy that I have continued and can make this career, but I have missed a lot.”
We now know Alderweireld as a vocal, dominant authority-figure on the pitch. But it took him time to grow into that man. “Toby was a different kind of character,” remembers David Endt, Ajax’s then-general manager. “He was always very reliable. But he was not as open as Jan. He was shy, not so outspoken. He was more of a silent guy.”
When Alderweireld broke into the Ajax first team he was outstanding, but he was the last person to realise that. Endt had to tell him. “Toby, you are doing so well, we are so happy you are here now”, Endt told him. “It’s so good to hear that,” replied Alderweireld. “People don’t say that to me much. I need this confidence.”
For Jan Vertonghen it was different.
He was is not from Antwerp, but from the Belgian countryside. And while he made the same switch as Alderweireld, from Germinal Beerschot to Ajax, it went much smoother. He threw himself into the big city life and defined himself instantly as an Amsterdammer.
“Jan became an Amsterdam kid,” remembers Endt. “He was from the countryside in Belgium, and he had to adapt the hard way. He was a young, young guy. But he turned into the most Amsterdam guy we had in the team at the time. He wanted to live in the city, not going to the outskirts to have a quiet life. He wanted to be part of Amsterdam.”
For Vertonghen that meant living right in the heart of city. It meant cycling everywhere, even to training, even though his team-mates made fun of him. Because, unlike for them, expensive clothes and expensive cars were never on his radar. He would rather spend his money and time filling his life with the city’s cultural activities instead: music, theatre, comedy, going to pub quizzes with his great friend Siem de Jong. “I have everything here that my heart desires,” Vertonghen told HLN back in 2009, three years before he left for Spurs. “Amsterdam is buzzing. There is always life on the street.”
These were the formative years of Vertonghen’s life, on and off the pitch. He met his wife Sophie, an aspiring theatre director, in Amsterdam. She would go to watch him perform for Ajax, he would go to watch her plays. It was only fair, and it was a respite from the world of repetitive changing room banter. “My girlfriend Sophie is an Amsterdam girl,” he said before they were married. “She comes to a game every week, so I do something for her too. I think it's great. I never come across colleagues. Football alone would drive me crazy.”
And this set the template for Vertonghen’s life in London. He lives centrally here too, near Belsize Park, and still likes to fill his spare time with cultural pursuits.
So those nine years he spent in Amsterdam are still with him, and Ajax are still in his heart. Vertonghen still watches their games, and speaks to the players and staff. Nothing about them will surprise him.
It was December 2010 and Ajax were in crisis. Martin Jol had been forced out as manager after months of soul-searching about what was happening to the club. Johan Cruyff had written recently that Jol’s team was “no longer Ajax” and that they needed a “great big broom” to return the club to its values. This began years of political infighting which transformed the club from top to bottom.
But with Jol out, Ajax turned to Frank de Boer to take temporary charge. And he had to prepare the team for a Champions League away game against the Milan of Ronaldinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and the rest.
It was precisely the sort of big European game that Jol had not trusted the 18-year-old Christian Eriksen in. Jol was a grizzled coach who wanted experience and presence, and Eriksen was just a slight teenager. Jol had started to slowly integrate Eriksen into his team for the last few months. But not as fast as many had hoped. For the whole of the Champions League campaign so far, Jol had left Eriksen on the bench.
“When Eriksen came, he was the typical Ajax player,” Endt recalls. “He was immediately loved by everyone as he played his football with the intelligence and the skill we love so much in Amsterdam. But I remember I spoke to Christian, he was a little sad and disappointed because Jol did not really give him the space he thought that he should have. Jol was traditional, he thought Eriksen was too young, not strong enough, he looked at the negative sides.”
That all changed with De Boer, and that night in Milan. “Frank had been working in the youth academy, he knew Christian as a player. And he was more positive, the Ajax way. This man can play football so put him in. Don’t be afraid of him being out-muscled, because he is smarter. Everything will come alright. So it was the first thing at the first meeting when De Boer explained how we would play against Milan: if you don’t know any solutions, just give the ball to Christian.”
And it worked. Ajax won the game 2-0 and an 18-year-old Eriksen was instrumental. Alderweireld even scored one of the goals. It was the game that launched the De Boer era, that won four Dutch titles. And the game that truly launched the Ajax career of Eriksen, the little Danish boy who wanted to be the new Michael Laudrup.
De Boer always knew how good Eriksen could be, how he had all of the skill and vision and instincts, but he just needed more confidence on the pitch. So De Boer just had to help him believe in himself. “What you miss is the ego to score goals,” De Boer told him. “You always want to give the pass. If there is a rebound from the goalkeeper, you have to support.” He even pointed to the example of Ajax alumnus Rafael van der Vaart, bursting into the box to support Peter Crouch, to show Eriksen how a number 10 could score goals.
Eriksen eventually left for Spurs in 2013, one year after Vertonghen. He is still held up at Ajax as an example of how best to play for and leave that club. Last year Ajax made a video for their younger players showing how they could evolve into club legends if they just stayed a bit longer, with Eriksen held up as an example to Frenkie De Jong. Alderweireld and Vertonghen could have been used as examples too, having grown up at one club and flourished at another.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies