The Ajax Kid Who Will Be King
It has taken just over a year, but the rest of the world has now realised what everyone at Ajax has known for some time – Justin Kluivert can become one of the best players on the planet.
The 18-year-old’s professional career is barely 50 games old but his devastating pace and mesmerising skills have seen him go from academy graduate to first-team regular at the Johan Cruijff ArenA.
Coaches and pundits are lining up to tout him as the game’s next superstar. He has beaten Gianluigi Donnarumma to this year’s NxGn award, while Europe’s top clubs are scrambling for his signature. Yet rather than turn his back on such attention, Kluivert is embracing it.
He will casually talk up a future transfer to either Real Madrid or Barcelona, while at the same time listing Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United as alternative destinations, insisting that the “possibilities are already there” to join one of the continent’s top teams.
It may be rare to hear a youngster so willing to fuel rather than quell transfer talk, but Kluivert is no ordinary player. He conducts himself with a swagger. Nothing fazes him.
If his status as one of the Amsterdam club's most exciting prospects in years did not place enough pressure on his shoulders, there is the added burden of being the son of Ajax and Barcelona legend Patrick.
Kluivert, though, doesn’t seem in the least bit bothered by the weight of expectation. He deals with the hype as he does with defenders on the field: facing it head-on, with great confidence and purpose.
Despite all the options available to him, he holds a career at Camp Nou as the ultimate goal, as if to directly challenge the legacy his father left behind
“My dream club? Barcelona. That is my dream club,” he told Goal when presented with the NxGn award. “To follow in my father’s footsteps? Yes. That is my dream club in the end. I would not mind going elsewhere, but Barcelona is the dream.”
This is not a talent under any illusions. He may be privileged in many ways, but he knows he will not sail through life and to Camp Nou stardom.
When asked what makes him so special, he says: "I think that I always used to make plenty of sacrifices to achieve my goal and to have a successful career, and I still do so. I think that is crucial for youngsters who want to make it. Plus, there is obviously the matter of talent and working hard in training."
Of course, he is used to scrutiny at this stage. A special buzz has followed him from his early teens, when word spread throughout Netherlands that the son of the man who scored Ajax’s winner in their 1995 Champions League win over AC Milan had become a star of the club’s youth sector.
Kluivert progressed rapidly through the world-renowned academy, featuring for the Under-19s at the age of 16 before breaking into the senior squad a year later, after a short spell in Dutch football’s second tier with Jong Ajax.
By the time he made his Ajax debut at 17 in January 2017, he had grown accustomed to being constantly compared to his father, one of Netherlands’ greatest ever goalscorers. Instead of seeing a shadow looming over him, Justin wants to use Patrick’s experience to his own benefit and avoid the mistakes even an icon made along the way.
“He has obviously been very important to my development because he has already been there before himself,” he said. “He has experienced it all first hand and you can only learn from that. If someone makes a mistake, he’s not likely to make that same mistake again.
“So, I am that person now and his experiences help me. I learn from his mistakes in that regard. Of course, I still make some mistakes, but I learn from those as well. That’s part of my development.”
His career is not going to be some eerie reincarnation of his dad’s though. One thing that Kluivert has made clear is that he is going to do things his own way and he has already surpassed Patrick in certain areas, making his first appearance at Ajax at a younger age, as well as becoming the first in his family to score an Eredivisie hat-trick.
Obviously, they are very different players. “He has a different physique and has different attributes,” Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar told Goal. “He is quicker, left- and right-footed, while Patrick was really the main striker.
“Justin is a bit smaller, but he is faster and he has an eye for goal as well. That is what they have in common.”
Kluivert also has great control, acceleration and sharp turning ability; he is always sure he can zig-zag his way out of trouble when surrounded by opponents in small spaces.
His playing style has drawn comparisons to Neymar, which he sees as an ideal level to aim for.
“That is obviously great to hear, but Neymar is world class. It is my goal to become as good as he is and I train hard on a daily basis to get there. Of course, you go through difficult spells as well, but I am still only 18. I eventually hope to become as good as Neymar, though.
“Like me, he's not overly tall or strong, but he's very fast and agile. I can see some of that in myself, yeah. And he’s got that frivolous style of play, I have that as well. So yeah, I can understand the comparisons.”
He has other role models to learn from, however: “My father is one of them, but Cristiano Ronaldo is another, also because of what he’s doing off the pitch,” he said.
“He doesn’t just think about himself, but also about others. He does a lot for charities and is really dedicated to his life as a footballer. That’s something I can learn from and I want to be doing myself as well.”
For all his admiration of the Real Madrid star, he does not see him as the best around.
“I am Team Messi. He is the best player in the world, but Ronaldo is a role model for me.
“I’m sure Messi works hard as well, but I like the way Ronaldo manages to deliver the message across social media. He is an example to follow because of the way he lives for the game. That’s just great.”
Kluivert has a lot to do in his homeland before he can consider following his heroes to conquering La Liga.
His primary target is winning an Eredivisie title with the club he has been with since the age of eight. Still in the early days of his senior career, he is one of several impressive young players in Amsterdam alongside Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, David Neres and Donny van de Beek.
However, there is no denying that he and De Ligt, who finished fourth on Goal’s NxGn list, both are special talents. Maybe even legendary, says Van der Sar.
“Winning a trophy or an individual prize should motivate them to work even harder, it does not stop there, you have to keep on going,” the former Manchester United goalkeeper said. “Hopefully they will follow the path of many other players that came through, like Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Frank de Boer, Edgard Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Wesley Sneijder, it is a long list. Hopefully they will have a successful career at Ajax first and then be able to make the next step.”
Kluivert gave the first glimpse of his awesome ability to a national audience with a solid debut as a first-half substitute against PEC Zwolle in January of last year and he spent the next few months on the bench.
However, he scored in just his third Eredivisie start and his influence grew from there, as Peter Bosz’s side pushed eventual champions Feyenoord right until the final week of the campaign.
“He has flair and that is his strength,” Bosz told Voetbal International. “He also has no fear on the field. A cheeky boy, but in a good way.
“He has his emotions under control. That is very clever for a young player with all the outside influences.
“Justin knows how to act well despite all kinds of factors around him that don’t make it any easier. That shows good character.”
He ended the season with two goals and four assists from 14 Eredivisie appearances, but it was in the Europa League that he and his fellow Ajax stars shot to prominence, with exhilarating knockout-stage wins over Schalke and Lyon.
Young stars Kasper Dolberg, Davinson Sanchez, De Ligt, Neres and Kluivert captured the hearts of fans across Europe on their way to a first continental final in 21 years, and while the latter did not feature in the 2-0 defeat to Manchester United in Sweden, his talk with Jose Mourinho on the touchline afterwards sparked immediate speculation of a move to Old Trafford.
“He came to me and said: ‘I’ve known you for a long time,’” Kluivert revealed months later.
“I looked at him with confusion and he explained that he was the assistant coach at Barcelona when my dad played there. ‘I’ve known you for a long time, since you were a week old.’
“He thought it was nice to see me now, and that I was doing well and in the final against him with Ajax. And I was also to pass on his regards to my father.
“So, it is not what the media said. Everyone has been lured in!”
If the media were quick to jump the gun, Kluivert was soon reminded that he still has a lot of work to do to establish himself at Ajax at the beginning of this season.
He looked lost on the right wing under new coach Marcel Keizer and was dropped for Neres after a few weeks.
However, when Amin Younes picked up an injury in November, Kluivert stepped in to his natural role on the left and seized the opportunity to shine.
Upon his return to the starting XI, he picked up an assist when he darted inside and cut the ball back to Donny van de Beek to score in an 8-0 win at NAC Breda.
The following week, he scored a stunning hat-trick against Roda JC that grabbed headlines across the world, displaying his wide range of ability with three very different but delightful goals.
He remains a first-team regular in spite of another change in coach, with Keizer having been sacked and replaced by Erik ten Hag in December, as his varied style suits the former Utrecht and Bayern Munich II boss’s plans.
The one thing missing from Kluivert’s make-up is that rare ability to take hold of crucial games. All of his goals this season have come against teams in the bottom half of the table, and he has been kept quiet by bigger sides like PSV, AZ, Feyenoord and Utrecht, whereas Neres, De Jong and De Ligt have looked far stronger on such occasions.
However, it is something that he is aware of. After an underwhelming performance in Ajax’s recent 3-2 loss at Vitesse, he admitted: "I have to show a lot more in games. And I intend to do that in the upcoming matches and the coming year.
“I have to say that I didn’t succeed against Vitesse, because I want to be a player who carries the team in tow.”
It is a compliment to his talent that the smarter Eredivisie sides are doubling up on him, though, and even Feyenoord boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst highlighted him as a threat in January, saying that Kluivert “has all the qualities that a winger in today's football must have”.