Football Features

10 players you (probably) forgot spent time at Ajax

By Chris Smith

Published: 16:00, 4 July 2020

The Ajax talent factory is back in business, with the Dutch giants having made their first Champions League semi-final appearance since 1997 last season.

Erik ten Hag’s side captured the hearts and minds of fans around Europe with their fearless brand of football, dumping out Real Madrid and Juventus en route to their last-gasp defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.

The likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt set the tournament alight, with the only downside to their magnificent run being that Ten Hag’s team was completely ripped apart by the continent’s richest and biggest this summer.

But regardless of what De Jong and De Ligt do in their careers, they’ll always be remembered for their early exploits with Ajax which is an honour that isn’t attained by everybody who dons the red and white shirt, regardless of how much success they do or don’t have.

Below, we’ve listed 10 players you’ve probably completely forgot played for Ajax. Some left Amsterdam and achieved greatness but others sank into obscurity.

1. Steven Pienaar

Years spent at Ajax: 2001-2006

Ajax appearances: 131

Major honours won: 2 x Eredivisie, 1 x KNVB Cup

Better known for his wonderful partnership with Leighton Baines on Everton’s left wing, as well as his failed spell with Spurs, you’d be forgiven for not knowing Steven Pienaar actually began catching the eye during his spell with Ajax.

After spending two years with their South African feeder club, Ajax Cape Town, Pienaar landed in Holland and became a pivotal part of an Ajax side that won two Eredivisie titles, a KNVB Cup and reached a Champions League quarter-final.

The South Africa international also shared the pitch with an illustrious list of names including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder before leaving for Borussia Dortmund in 2006.

2. Filipe Luis

Years spent at Ajax: 2004-2005

Ajax appearances: 0

Major honours won: 0

Atletico Madrid stalwart, failed Chelsea left-back, Brazil international, Flamengo star. Just a few of the things Filipe Luis will be remembered for at the end of his career.

One thing he isn’t likely to be held in regard for is his one-year stay at Ajax between 2004-2005, where he failed to make a single first-team appearance.

That said, Luis does credit Ajax with helping him mature and develop his tactical knowledge of the game, while he has often hinted at his desire to return there one day: “The truth is that they took a gamble, and I did not even play.”

Unfinished business?

3. James Lawrence

Years spent at Ajax: 2009-2011

Ajax appearances: 0

Major honours won: 0

After spending time in the Arsenal and QPR youth systems, Wales international James Lawrence has been on a pit-stop tour of Europe, taking in Belgium, Slovakia and, in his youth, Holland.

Ajax were one of the four Dutch sides Lawrence spent time at, between 2009-2011. His time in Amsterdam was riddled with injuries and a worrying heart problem brought on by the increased intensity of training at Ajax. He did, however, get to meet and be coached by one of his Arsenal idols, Dennis Bergkamp, something that still resonates with him to this day.

“I walked into the changing room for my first friendly game and sat down to get ready,” he says. “Then Dennis Bergkamp walked in. All of my team-mates got up but I just sat there.

“My jaw dropped. I couldn’t say a word. I couldn’t move. As an Arsenal fan, having him there for my first game was amazing.”

4. Nwankwo Kanu

Years spent at Ajax: 1993-1996

Ajax appearances: 71

Major honours won: 3 x Eredivisie, 1 x Uefa Champions League

Those of a younger generation may only remember Nwankwo Kanu for his mercurial exploits at Arsenal, or maybe even just his days with West Brom and Portsmouth as he advanced into his 30s. If you’re really stretching your memory, you might recall his size 500 feet?

However, you footballing fledglings should certainly take a look at his career before heading to north London when, between 1993-1996, Kanu helped Ajax to three Eredivisie titles and the 1995 Champions League trophy – the last time the Dutch giants got their hands on Europe’s biggest prize.

Never prolific, always entertaining, Kanu was an incredibly underrated player whose gifted touch was a sight to behold – which won him a place in Arsene Wenger’s heart.

His brother Christopher Kanu was also on the books at one stage.

5. Arkadiusz Milik

Years spent at Ajax: 2014-2016

Ajax appearances: 75

Major honours won: 0

Given how much he tore up Serie A last season, it’s quite easy to forget that Arkadiusz Milik spent two seasons at Ajax before heading to Napoli.

Is that because he never managed a major trophy? Quite possibly. At an individual level, though, the Poland international was a ruthless goalscoring machine, notching 23 goals in 33 games during his first season, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, and 24 in 42 the season after.

Ajax then spun a huge profit on Milik, reigning in €35m on a player they’d spent just €2.8m on a year earlier.

6. Georgi Kinkladze

Years spent at Ajax: 1998-2000

Ajax appearances: 12

Major honours won: 1 x KNVB Cup

One of the biggest cult figures in English football, once Georgi Kinkladze’s time at Manchester City – which was as heartbreaking as it was beautiful – was over, he was shipped off to Ajax in what should have been the perfect move for the Georgian playmaker.

Unfortunately, things just didn’t get going for Kinkladze and although he did win a KNVB Cup, he was restricted to just 15 first-team appearances before heading back to England with Derby County having not scored a single goal in Holland.

7. Christian Chivu

Years spent at Ajax: 1999-2003

Ajax appearances: 142

Major honours won: 1 x Eredivisie, 1 x KNVB Cup

An Ajax defender who’s a free-kick specialist? No, it’s not Ronald Koeman, it’s former Roma and Inter Milan defender, Christian Chivu.

Before heading off to Italy to win a raft of major honours, including the 2010 Champions League, Chivu played alongside the likes of Ibrahimovic, Van der Vaart and the aforementioned Pienaar at Ajax, captaining the side that won the 2001-02 Eredivisie title.

Ironically, Chivu only scored one goal that season but in the campaigns either side of that, he notched five and six goals, respectively, thanks to his prowess from set pieces.

8. Bojan Krkic

Years spent at Ajax: 2013-2014 (loan)

Ajax appearances: 32

Major honours won: 1 x Eredivisie

One of the most frustratingly disappointing careers in modern football has to be that of Bojan Krkic. After breaking Lionel Messi’s record as Barcelona’s youngest La Liga player (17 years and 19 days) in September 2007, the forward never quite cut it at the Nou Camp but still managed to add the likes of Roma, AC Milan and the mighty Stoke City to his CV.

Sandwiched between all that was a loan spell at Ajax during the 2013/14 season in which he scored five goals in 32 appearances. Although he helped the club to the Eredivisie title that year, it wasn’t enough to persuade Ajax to take up their option of extending the loan by another season.

After a number of unsuccessful loan spells, Bojan was used sporadically by Stoke in the Championship last season and is now at Montreal Impact.

9. Mido

Years spent at Ajax: 2001-2003, 2010 (loan)

Ajax appearances: 56 (two spells)

Major honours won: 2 x Eredivisie, 1 x KNVB Cup

Before experiencing relative success with Tottenham, Mido was a bit of a goal machine at Ajax.

The Egyptian striker bagged 12 goals in 24 Eredivisie games as Ajax won the league and cup double in 2001/02, before netting another 10 in 24 across all competitions a season later.

A nomadic career followed in which Mido turned out for the likes of Spurs, Roma, Middlesbrough and West Ham to name a few. He also returned to Ajax for a loan spell in 2010, scoring three goals in six games as Ajax won the Dutch top-flight title once again.

10. Yossi Benayoun

Another like Filipe Luis who will be mostly remembered for his exploits at the top of the food chain, with the former Israel international turning out for the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

The twinkle-toed attacking midfielder only recently announced his retirement from football, bringing the curtain down on an illustrious career that spanned over two decades.

And while many will associate Benayoun’s name with the Premier League, few actually know that he spent eight months in the Ajax academy during his teenage years, flourishing in Amsterdam, which prompted the club to offer him a four-year professional contract, only for him to reject it and return to Israel.

By the time he turned 16, he was one of the most highly-regarded teenagers in the Ajax academy, and had be earmarked for future success in the first-team, but having struggled to adapt to life in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, Benayoun rejoined boyhood club Hapoel Be’er Sheva in his homeland.

Of course, the Israeli went on to achieve great heights in his career, but who knows what could have been had he spent just a few more years learning at one of world football’s finest institutions.