Football Features

FC Groningen, a talent factory that develops an implausible number of future superstars

By Muhammad Butt

FC Groningen, a talent factory that develops an implausible number of future superstars copy

Published: 13:00, 23 January 2024 | Updated: 14:08, 1 February 2024

Everyone knows the Eredivisie is a conveyor belt of great playing talent.

Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord. Scouts from Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues are often interested in getting to know the players rising through the ranks of the three grand old Dutch teams, each a former European Champion.

But what about other sides in the Eredivisie? Well, Groningen has often produced world-class players-in-the-making and future Ballon d’Or contenders, and they will be hoping that their ability to unearth talent won’t be affected by their relegation to the second tier of Dutch football.

If they kept hold of their star players, their recent plummet certainly wouldn’t have happened.

Nicknamed the ‘Pride of the North’, Groningen are not a club accustomed to success in the conventional sense. They won the Dutch second division twice, most recently in 1980, and managed to shock everybody and win the KNVB Cup in 2015. Other than those rare moments of triumph, they are mostly known for the players they have developed or signed from other continents.

Here are 12 case studies highlighting Groningen’s knack for spotting gems who went on to greater things.

1. Ronald Koeman

Joined from: Youth system

Groningen Appearances: 90

Left for: Ajax in 1983

The younger Koeman brother debuted in 1980 and was an immediate success. As a teenager, he scored 30 goals for the club, at least 20 more than any others managed.

During his final season at Oosterpark, Ronald got to play alongside his brother Erwin, who had returned for his second spell at the club. But Ronald soon departed to become one of the greatest players in the world, winning everything he went for at club level during spells with Ajax, PSV and Barcelona.

After retirement, Koeman went into coaching and carved out a respectable career. He managed all three Dutch giants (just as he played for them all, too) and Valencia, Benfica and in England with Southampton and Everton, before taking up the reins as his country’s national team boss.

A spell at Barcelona came next, but he is now back in the hot seat of the national team.

2. Erwin Koeman

Joined from: Youth system, PSV (twice)

Groningen Appearances: 210

Left for: PSV in 1979, Mechelen in 1985

The older Koeman brother came through the ranks at Groningen, debuting in 1978 as a midfielder.

Erwin’s playing career path reads like a game of ping pong. After a single season with Groningen, he left for PSV but returned three years later to play one campaign alongside his brother Ronald. His second departure came two years later, this time headed to Mechelen.

The move resulted in silverware, including the Cup Winner’s Cup, before it was back to PSV, where he would lift a couple of Eredivisie titles and sign up for a third spell with Groningen. This one lasted four years later and culminated in his retirement.

Erwin was the interim coach of Fenerbahce following the departure of Phillip Cocu in 2018, whom he initially assisted, and has since taken charge of Oman and Beitar Jerusalem before joining his brother as assistant coach of the Netherlands.

3. Virgil van Dijk

Joined from: Willem II in 2010

Groningen Appearances: 66

Left for: Celtic in 2013

The ball-playing centre-back first emerged for Groningen in 2010/11, joining them from Willem II as a youngster in 2010. At the time, he was linked with Ajax and PSV, but a move never emerged. Van Dijk’s big break finally came when Celtic took an interest. He shone at Celtic Park before finally moving up to the big time with his transfer to Southampton.

Liverpool broke the world-record fee for a defender in December 2017, signing the Dutchman for a massive £75m from Saints. The 31-year-old made a dream debut with a match-winning FA Cup goal against Everton and has established himself as one of the best centre-backs in the English top flight after transforming Jurgen Klopp’s defence, which subsequently saw the club win the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup, Super Cup and Club World Cup.

4. Daley Blind

Joined from: Ajax (loan) in 2009

Groningen Appearances: 19

Left for: Ajax (end of loan) in 2010

He only joined for one season, but the younger Blind found his time in the northern part of the Netherlands a real grind. He did not play well and suffered from low confidence, which made him more mentally resilient. Plus, all the time spent at right-back impressed upon him the importance of versatility, a lesson that served him well at Ajax and Manchester United.

Blind returned to his boyhood club, Ajax, in July 2018 after making 141 appearances in four seasons for the Red Devils and has since joined Girona following a brief loan spell at Bayern Munich.

5. Dusan Tadic

Joined from: FK Vojvodina in 2010

Groningen Appearances: 76

Left for: FC Twente in 2012

The Serbian international was a huge success for Groningen, thrilling fans with penetrative wing play and an absurd amount of creativity. In 2010/11, his first season, he finished with a whopping 22 assists, the third-most among all major European leagues (behind just Lionel Messi and Mesut Ozil).

He left for Twente, scoring twice against Groningen on his debut, and went on to star for Southampton after being brought to the club by fellow Groningen alumni Ronald Koeman.

Tadic is another who returned to the Eredivisie, again with another new side. Ajax signed him for £10m in June 2018 and watched him become one of Europe’s most creative forwards, guiding the Amsterdammers to a Champions League semi-final appearance in 2018/19.

He can now be found at Fenerbahçe.

6. Leandro Bacuna

Joined from: Youth system

Groningen Appearances: 147

Left for: Aston Villa in 2013

You wouldn’t include him in the ‘superstar’ bracket, but Bacuna was superb for Groningen. Debuting as a youth team product, he helped lead the club to an impressive series of finishes, including fifth in 2011 and seventh in his final season in 2012/13. He joined Aston Villa to mark the start of his adventure in English football, with the 32-year-old since turning out for Reading, Cardiff City and now back at Groningen following a period at Watford.

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7. Filip Kostic

Joined from: FK Radnicki in 2012

Groningen Appearances: 49

Left for: VfB Stuttgart in 2014

This Serbian winger was signed to replace Tadic; the similarity of nationality and position seemed too perfect a fit, and he struggled in his debut season, barely playing and failing to score.

The tough experience steadied him, though, and a much more promising sophomore campaign saw him score 12 times and earn a move to Stuttgart. His form convinced Hamburg to break their transfer record in 2016 and pay £11.9m for his services.

Eintracht Frankfurt then came next for Kostic, and he helped the club win the Europa League last season before joining Juventus that summer.

8. Arjen Robben

Joined from: Youth system

Groningen Appearances: 52

Left for: PSV in 2002

Fresh out of their youth academy, Arjen Robben debuted for Groningen as a 16-year-old, and it didn’t take long for him to become a firm part of their first XI. His second season confirmed what a special talent they had on their hands. Little Groningen had produced one of the world’s finest, and PSV swooped for him the next summer.

From PSV to Chelsea to Real Madrid, Robben was an electric dynamo held back only by injury woes. At Bayern Munich, he overcame this (along with his fear of big matches) to earn untold success and praise.

Robben announced his retirement from international football after the Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia before seemingly hanging up his boots in July 2019 after a spectacular career.

But a year later, he announced a sensational return to Groningen…

After seven appearances, he called time on his career in 2021.

9. Marcus Berg

Joined from: IFK Göteborg in 2007

Groningen Appearances: 69

Left for: Hamburger SV in 2009

The Swedish sensation looked the latest in a long line of lethal Eredivisie strikers. In his debut campaign with Groningen, he scored 18 goals in 31 games. His second was even better, with 26 goals filling out 38 games.

This incredible output earned him a move to Hamburg, but sadly, he did not adapt to the new level. He spent the next few years moving around before settling in Greece, where he recovered that old Groningen rhythm for Panathinaikos, resulting in 95 goals in 151 games. He joined Al Ain in the UAE in the summer of 2017 and has since moved on to Russian outfit Krasnodar before retiring at IFK Goteborg in his homeland of Sweden.

10. Luis Suarez

Joined from: Nacional in 2006

Groningen Appearances: 29

Left for: Ajax in 2007

Groningen didn’t even intend to sign Suarez when they went to scout Nacional, but he saw potential in the spiky forward and took him anyway. After early struggles with culture shock, Suarez became a relentless goalscorer and a huge part of their attack, held back only by his temperament, which saw him constantly get in trouble (which has stained his reputation for his whole career).

Suarez earned a move to Ajax after just one season and has been lethal ever since, achieving a total of 111 goals in 159 games for Ajax, 82 goals in 133 games for Liverpool, a quite absurd 198 goals in 283 games for Barcelona and 34 goals in 83 games for Atletico Madrid.

He is now with Inter Miami — reuniting with Lionel Messi — following time at Brazilian side Gremio following a short return to boyhood club Nacional.

11. Ritsu Doan

Joined from: Gamba Osaka in 2017

Groningen Appearances: 66

Left for: PSV in 2019

After a debut campaign in which the Japanese international scored nine goals and provided three assists — bettering Arjen Robben’s teenage tally by one goal — Doan has started to carve out a pretty good career for himself.

So impressive was the 2016 Young Asian Footballer of the Year in his first season that Man City reportedly approached with a co-ownership deal to secure a stake in his talent. The Eredivisie side rejected this, and Doan completed his permanent switch to Groningen at the beginning of 2018/19.

A left-footed, attack-minded, tricky winger-cum-midfielder, Doan may not be the first of his kind to thrive in the north of the Netherlands, and he is now donning the shirt of SC Freiburg after spells with PSV and Arminia Bielefeld.

12. Hans Hateboer

Joined from: Youth system

Groningen Appearances: 111

Left for: Atalanta in 2017

Another youth system member, Hans Hateboer, burst onto the scene in the Eredivisie as a fiercely attacking full-back with a creative streak that would have flattered a playmaker. Naturally, his time at Groningen didn’t last long, though he did make over 100 appearances for the club before moving on to new pastures.

That came in 2017 when Gian Piero Gasperini identified him as the perfect wing-back for his fluid, overlapping system. Since then, the Dutch international has been a mainstay in the club’s side and typifies the relentless and fluid approach upon which Gasperini’s system operates.