For Matthijs de Ligt and the new generation of young Dutch talent, Friday’s Euro 2020 qualifier against fierce rivals Germany is the latest chance to prove they are ready for a return to the big time.
Last spring, the 20-year-old central defender and young teammates Frenkie De Jong and Donny van de Beek dazzled Europe as they led Ajax to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
That run, and the national team’s revival under Ronald Koeman suggest that the Dutch might have another golden generation after failing to qualify for the most recent Euros and World Cup, and De Ligt is their figurehead.
The Dutch are looking to gain revenge of the 3-2 defeat to Joachim Loew’s side in March and regain a foothold in Group C, where they are nine points behind leaders Northern Ireland but with two games in hand. More importantly, they are six points behind the second-placed Germans — who have played a game more — thanks to that defeat in Amsterdam.
At just 19, De Ligt wore the captain’s armband as Ajax eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus before stumbling in the closing seconds against Tottenham in the last four.
He also scored against both Juve and Spurs. His performances earned him a summer move to Juve, one of the temples of defensive play, for 70 million euros ($77.3 million) — the third-most-expensive player in the club’s history behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain — where he will earn 12 million euros a year over the next five seasons.
He was catapulted into a starting role when the Italian champions’ captain Giorgio Chiellini tore a knee ligament in training, but his debut against Napoli on Sunday did not go well, as Juventus chucked away a three-goal lead before a stoppage-time own goal saved their blushes.
De Ligt was criticised for his poor display, but back with the Dutch squad, he found a supporter in Koeman, himself a former central defender.
“Don’t forget that he’s only 20 years old and has to adapt to his new environment,” former Barcelona star Koeman said. – Tennis and hockey – De Ligt was born in Abcoude, a peaceful town of 8,000 inhabitants about 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) from Amsterdam, to a family of athletes. His parents played tennis and hockey, and young Matthijs played both sports before finally turning to football.
He arrived at the Ajax training centre, De Toekomst, in 2009 a shy lad lacking self-confidence but grew physically and also developed the positive arrogance Ajax seek to instil. Sometimes mocked for being chubby, he worked hard on his fitness, in particular with the former 800-metre European champion, Bram Som.
De Ligt likes to insist that he considers himself a “normal boy” and not a genius like Lionel Messi. Yet the young Dutchman rose through the ranks quickly for both Ajax and the national team. He made his club debut just after his 17th birthday. Within six months he was a Dutch international. He became the youngest captain in Ajax history at 18. Against Germany, de Ligt will operate in the substantial shadow of central defensive partner Virgil van Dijk, just elected European player of the year and called “an enormous wardrobe,” by Germany’s Serge Gnabry. At Juventus, de Ligt believes he can learn from Ronaldo.
“At his side, I hope to make great progress, especially in terms of the seriousness of the work I do,” he recently told the Dutch daily De Telegraaf. “If he gives the image of a distant boy, it’s because he does everything to win,” said de Ligt. “The craziness I experienced with my small celebrity, he has seen multiplied to the power of a thousand.”