Football Features

11 familiar faces you (probably) didn’t realise played for Willem II

By Steve Jennings

Published: 11:00, 20 November 2023

There are a select group of clubs in the Netherlands your average football fan will be familiar with.

Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord have dominated Dutch football, especially in the modern era, winning the top-flight title 36, 24 and 16 times respectively.

Other clubs have had a say throughout history: AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente are the only others to have won the Eredivisie in the 21st century, while now little-known club HVV Den Haag won 10 titles prior to World War I.

Generally, though, just three clubs have led the way in recent years. But that doesn’t mean the less familiar names have failed to make an impact.

Indeed, Willem II – currently playing in the Dutch second division – has seen a number of high-profile players pass through their ranks over the years.

The Tilburg-based club have won three Dutch titles, most recently in the mid-1950s, but the team’s most promising players generally haven’t stuck around for long since then.

So, below are 11 players you probably didn’t realise wore the Willem II shirt and how their respective careers have panned out since leaving the club.

1. Virgil van Dijk

Time at Willem II: 2009-2010

Willem II senior appearances: 0

Current club: Liverpool

Virgil van Dijk’s senior career began at Dutch side Groningen, where he made 66 appearances before being poached by Celtic. The rest is history: Van Dijk has developed into one of the world’s leading centre-backs at Liverpool whom he now captains.

Prior to his spell at Groningen, Van Dijk came through the Willem II academy as a right-back. He never went on to make his senior debut for the club, joining Groningen as an 18-year-old. At that age, he probably didn’t expect to one day become skipper of the Netherlands national team or a Premier League and Champions League winner.

2. Frenkie de Jong

Time at Willem II: 2014-2015

Willem II senior appearances: 2

Current club: Barcelona

Having emerged as one of the brightest young talents in European football, Frenkie de Jong is currently orbiting the Camp Nou centre circle for Barcelona. But before he developed into a genuine star at Ajax, the 25-year-old spent some time in the Willem II academy.

After making his senior debut in 2014/15, De Jong was snapped up by Ajax for a €1 fee — which supposedly also included a clause entitling Willem II to 10% of the €75m fee Barcelona paid Ajax  — but then loaned back to his youth club, where he made one more appearance in 2015/16 before eventually breaking into the first-team picture at the Johan Cruyff Arena.

3. Dan Crowley

Time at Willem II: 2017-2019 and 2022-2023

Willem II senior appearances: 82

Current club: Notts County

There was some promise assigned to Dan Crowley following his graduation from Arsenal’s esteemed youth academy. The native of Coventry, though, would enjoy several loan spells including in the Netherlands with Go Ahead Eagles during which time he caught Willem II’s attention. This ultimately turned out to be Crowley’s first spell at the Tilburg-based club. He’d return after spending time with Birmingham City, Hull City and Cheltenham Town.

4. Mousa Dembele

Time at Willem II: 2005-2006

Willem II senior appearances: 39

Current club: Retired

Last plying his trade in the Chinese Super League after a six-and-a-half-year spell at Tottenham Hotspur, Mousa Dembele initially made his name in the Netherlands. He joined Willem II from Belgian club Germinal Beerschot in 2005 and scored nine goals in 33 Eredivisie appearances in the 2005/06 campaign.

That form earned the master dribbler – back then more of an attacker – a move to AZ Alkmaar, with whom he won the title in 2008/09 before signing for Fulham. He went on to earn cult status in England for his silky movement and incredible strength on the ball.

5. Sami Hyypiä

Time at Willem II: 1995-1999

Willem II senior appearances: 100

Current club: Unattached

The best spell of Sami Hyypiä’s career was undeniably his time at Liverpool. He made 466 appearances for the Merseysiders, winning two FA Cups and the Champions League among other honours. But many will be unaware of where Hyypia came from.

The centre-back arrived at Anfield from Willem II in 1999, the first year of 10 he was named Finnish Footballer of the Year. He played 100 times for Willem II, doing enough to lure Liverpool into making a move for a relatively unknown defender who went on to become an Anfield favourite.

Hyypia has moved into management and coaching since retiring, last serving as assistant manager to FC Haka in his homeland.

6. Jaap Stam

Time at Willem II: 1995-1996

Willem II senior appearances: 19

Current club: Unattached

We’re sensing a pattern here: Willem II appears to be a breeding ground for future Premier League centre-backs. Jaap Stam was the most successful of the lot, winning three Premier League titles with Manchester United and playing a key role in the 1998/99 treble under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Before shining in England, the imposing Dutchman made a name for himself in his native Holland with Willem II and PSV. He even returned to the Netherlands in the twilight of his career, making 31 appearances for Ajax before retiring in 2007. Stam was last manager of MLS side FC Cincinnati, who have a strong Dutch connection at board level.

7. Alexander Isak

Time at Willem II: 2019

Willem II senior appearances: 18

Current club: Newcastle

Swedish starlet Alexander Isak opted to sign for Borussia Dortmund from AIK in January 2017 despite rumoured interest from Real Madrid. The 20-year-old struggled to break into the Dortmund team and so joined Willem II on loan in the 2019 January transfer window.

It’s a move that paid off for both Willem II and Isak. The Swede scored 14 goals in 18 appearances for the club and subsequently earned himself a move to Real Sociedad in 2019. Since then he has continued to find the back of the net regularly, with 44 goals in 132 games for the Royal before joining Newcastle where he’s settled in well.

8. Vurnon Anita

Time at Willem II: 2018-2019

Willem II senior appearances: 31

Current club: Al-Orobah

Premier League fans may remember Vurnon Anita from his Newcastle United days. The former Ajax midfielder made 155 appearances for the Magpies across all competitions before leaving for Leeds United, where things didn’t really work out.

He left Elland Road in September 2019 and has since turned out for CSKA Sofia and, now, RKC Waalwijk. But just before having his Leeds contract terminated by mutual consent, he a season on loan with Willem II. The 34-year-old featured 31 times and even clocked minutes against his ex-club Ajax, for whom he made 152 appearances across eight seasons.


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9. Richairo Zivkovic

Time at Willem II: 2015

Willem II senior appearances: 18

Current club: Lion City Sailors

Having initially exploded on the scene with Groningen, following in the fabled footsteps of Arjen Robben by surpassing his feat as the club’s youngest ever scorer, Zivkovic attracted attention from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid but opted to continue his development in the Netherlands at Ajax.

A wise choice but things didn’t quite work out for him in Amsterdam. He eventually left for Oostende in 2017, but before that, he endured a temporary stint with Willem II, but the move didn’t prove as productive as hoped. Zivkovic is now playing for Singapore club Lion City Sailors after spending time in China with Guangzhou R&F, on loan from Changchun Yatai, while also enjoying a temporary spell at Sheffield United.

10. Kemy Agustien

Time at Willem II: 2002-2006

Willem II senior appearances: 55

Current club: Unattached

The former Birmingham, Crystal Palace, Swansea and Brighton midfielder actually progressed through the Willem II academy before AZ pounced for his signature in 2006. He has endured a nomadic existence down the English ladder in recent years, but has a League Cup medal to his name, owing to his performances in the 2012/13 season for Michael Laudrup’s Swans.

11. Ben Sahar

Time at Willem II: 2014-2015

Willem II senior appearances: 34

Current club: Maccabi Petah Tikva

There was a time when many thought Sahar would make it big at Stamford Bridge, but those aspirations ultimately proved short-lived as the Israeli prodigy failed to make the grade in west London and fell completely out of the limelight, before returning to his homeland in 2015. Today he is playing for Maccabi Petah Tikva where he joined from Maccabi Haifa soon after a brief stint at Willem II, which yielded eight goals in 34 games.

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