Football Features

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

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:00, 28 June 2020

Everyone knows the Eredivisie is a conveyor belt of great playing talent, even now in its reduced state.

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

But what about other sides in the Eredivisie? They might lack the profile of the aforementioned trio, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still part of the cohesive and fruitful organism that is Dutch football.

One such outfit is FC Groningen, a small club from the north of the Netherlands. Though nicknamed the ‘Pride of the North’, Groningen are not a club accustomed to success in the conventional sense. They won the Dutch second division on two occasions, 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 11 such 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. He scored 30 goals for the club as a teenager, at least 20 more than any other has 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 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 has carved out a respectable career for himself. Managing all three Dutch giants (just as he played for them all, too) as well as Valencia, Benfica and in England with Southampton and Everton, before taking up the reins as his country’s national team boss.

He subsequently guided Holland – who have missed the last two major international tournaments – to the inaugural Uefa Nations League final, but lost out to Portugal.

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 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 Eredivisie titles and then sign up for a third spell with Groningen. This one lasted four years later and culminated in his retirement.

Erwin was recently the interim coach of Fenerbahce following the departure of Phillip Cocu, whom he initially assisted, and last took charge of the Oman national side in 2019.

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 back in 2010/11, having joined them from Willem II as a youngster in 2010. At the time, he was linked with both 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 28-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 led him to be named Dutch national team captain by his international boss Ronald Koeman.

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 with low confidence but this ended up making 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.

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 absolutely 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 thereafter, having been brought to the club by fellow Groningen alumni Ronald Koeman.

Tadic is another who has 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 last season.

6. Leandro Bacuna

Joined from: Youth system

Groningen Appearances: 126

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 28-year-old since turning out for Reading and now Cardiff City in the Championship.

7. Filip Kostic

Joined from: FK Radnički 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 at all.

The tough experience steadied him, though, and a much more promising sophomore campaign saw him score 12 times and earn a move to Stuttgart. Like Bacuna, Kostic is not exactly a household name. He did, however, convince Hamburg to break their transfer record in 2016 and pay £11.9m for his services. Eintracht Frankfurt is Kostic’s current club and he was included in Uefa’s Europa League Squad of the Season in 2018/19 following a campaign in which they reached the semi-finals.

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 got 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 altogether in July 2019 after a truly spectacular career, but a year later he announced a sensational return to Groningen.

“I’m here to help the club,” he told reporters.

“You do that by showing the right attitude. I don’t have anything to lose and I’m going into the challenge with a positive attitude and to try and make the best of it.

“I haven’t set any goals, it could be over in a month or it could last two years.”

9. Marcus Berg

Joined from: IFK Göteborg in 2007

Groningen Appearances: 69

Left for: Hamburger SV in 2009

The Swedish sensation looked to be the latest in a long line of lethal Eredivisie strikers. In his debut campaign with Groningen, he scored an impressive 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.

He led the line for Sweden at the 2018 World Cup but failed to score from 14 shots on goal, a far cry from his 25 goals in 21 games in the 2017/18 UAE Pro-League campaign.

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 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 (and which has stained his reputation for his whole career).

Suarez earned a move to Ajax after just one season and has been absolutely lethal ever since, achieving a total of 111 goals in 159 games for Ajax, 82 goals in 133 games for Liverpool, and a quite absurd 193 goals in 275 games for current club Barcelona.

11. Ritsu Doan

Joined from: Gamba Osaka in 2017

Groningen Appearances: 66

Left for: PSV in 2019

Still only 21 years old, Doan’s is included in this article on the basis of a heavy dose of forecasting. However, 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 – it seems worthwhile including him now rather than revisiting later.

So impressive was the 2016 Young Asian Footballer of the Year in his first season, in fact, that Man City reportedly approached with a co-ownership deal to secure a stake in his talent. This was rejected by the Eredivisie side 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, but he certainly looks like the latest. It seems PSV would agree, given they secured the Japan international’s services last summer.