Football Features

The meteoric rise and unfortunate fall of Kasper Dolberg at Ajax

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 11:45, 29 June 2021

It was somewhat fitting that Kasper Dolberg broke the deadlock in Denmark’s Euro 2020 last-16 tie against Wales.

Following great link-up play with Mikkel Darmsgaard, Dolberg produced a brilliant strike from just outside the box, which Danny Ward had no chance of saving. This effort was the 23-year-old’s first in the competition and it just so happened to be at his old stomping ground.

During a three-year period for Dutch giants Ajax, the Silkeborg-born footballer made 119 appearances in all competitions, scoring 45 times whilst creating 11 more. Before facing Robert Page’s men the last time Dolberg celebrated a goal at the Johan Cruijff ArenA was in July 2019 (in the Dutch Super Cup vs PSV), a month before he completed a reported €20.5m switch to Ligue 1 outfit Nice.

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A graduate of Ajax’s esteemed academy, Dolberg announced himself to great fanfare with the world seemingly at his feet. But like an explosion it all vanished, though his career hasn’t exactly been derailed. Just three minutes after the break against Wales, Dolberg doubled Denmark’s lead, but had things turned out differently, Amsterdam would still be home.

Undeniable rise

The early 2010s saw Ajax go through a list of No. 9s, each starting well before eventually regressing, but Arkadiusz Milik was different. Initially on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, the Polish striker brought his A-game to Amsterdam, subsequently earning a contract after bagging 23 goals across 34 matches (2014/15).

Milik went one better the following season, before Napoli made the Amsterdammers an offer they couldn’t refuse, presenting an opportunity which Dolberg grabbed with both hands. Under Peter Bosz’s leadership, the Dane finished the 2016/17 campaign with 23 goals across 47 matches in all competitions, seven of which came in Ajax’s incredible Europa League final run. Affectionately dubbed ‘Goalberg’, he was gaining traction. Lionel Messi even named him as one of the nine best young talents in world football.

“I see many similarities with Marco van Basten,” his father Flemming Rasmussen told AT5. “If he goes like him that’s very good of course. They are the same size, same speed and both have a good shot. Maybe they will soon sit at the same level.”

In 2017, Dolberg earned the Johan Cruyff Trophy after being named Dutch Football Talent of the Year and the Marco van Basten Award given to whomever Ajax declare as their Talent of the Year. Given how spectacular Dolberg’s debut season turned out, the pressure to build on it took a heavy toll as he could only manage nine strikes in 2017/18. What didn’t help was a foot injury that kept him on the sidelines for 102 days, forcing him to miss 12 matches – his longest absence at Ajax.

A series of unfortunate events

This would be a harbinger of things to come. With Erik ten Hag in charge, Ajax invested heavily in the summer of 2018, notably signing Dusan Tadic from Southampton which, in time, would have a great impact on Dolberg’s position. Nevertheless, Dolberg would play 38 times as de Godenzonen won a first league and cup double since 2002, as well as unexpectedly reaching the Champions League semi-finals (though he completed the full 90 minutes just nine times).

A big reason for Dolberg’s transition to a back-up role was the revelation of Tadic as a False No. 9 and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar turning back time. Injuries were also a factor, as he would suffer two respective setbacks (abdominal and knee problems) which robbed him of 12 potential appearances.

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It couldn’t be a better illustration of the future never being guaranteed. Dolberg started out so promising before turning into yesterday’s news due to a combination of personal bad luck and the club not standing still.

Returning to play in the Dutch capital with Denmark, not only brought back fond memories, but also served as great inspiration for Dolberg.

“This is completely crazy,” he said after the 4-0 win over Wales.

“In fact, I don’t know how I feel. It’s total madness. It’s surreal. This is where it all started for me, and playing here again in this setting was insane.

“When we were on the way to the stadium, I felt that this match would be special for me today and it was.”

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