Football Features

Netherlands’ most underrated academy? Sparta Rotterdam have had a big influence on Euro 2020

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 10:00, 29 June 2021

There is still a lot of football to be played but if the Netherlands were to go all the way at Euro 2020, the playing field of Sparta Rotterdam’s Het Kasteel could end up being a key factor en route to Wembley.

Frank de Boer’s men reached the knockout phase with minimal fuss having won Group C with a 100% record. They also proved to be ruthless in front of goal, scoring eight goals, the most by any side in the group stage.

What’s even more remarkable is the identity of those goalscorers. Georginio Wijnaldum (three), Denzel Dumfries (two) and Memphis Depay (two) who, combined, were responsible for 87.5% of those strikes, came up through Sparta Rotterdam’s revered youth academy.

When mentioning developmental programs in football, De Kasteelheren are rarely brought up, which cannot be said of neighbours Feyenoord or Ajax, but their set-up is just as good. To illustrate the point, we’ve looked at five footballers beyond the aforementioned trio who received an education at arguably the nation’s most underrated academy.

Danny Blind

Sparta Rotterdam appearances: 188

Current club: Retired

Arguably the most successful academy graduate, though none of that glory attained by Danny Blind came at the place where it all started for him. His consistent performances attracted Johan Cruyff’s attention and he soon joined Ajax in 1986, much to skipper Marco van Basten’s bemusement, who was unsure of the unheralded defender.

Those skeptics were quickly won over and Blind would soon become synonymous with the Amsterdammers. By lifting the 1995 Champions League as captain, the native of Oost-Souburg became the second Dutchman after former teammate Arnold Muhren to have won all three of UEFA’s major club prizes, having previously enjoyed Cup Winners’ Cup (1987) and UEFA Cup (1992) successes.

Anwar El Ghazi

Sparta Rotterdam appearances: 0

Current club: Aston Villa

Very unlucky not to be part of Oranje‘s squad at this summer’s European Championship following a strong Premier League campaign with Aston Villa, where he bagged 10 goals across 28 matches in 2020/21.

Anwar El Ghazi initially switched from Sparta’s youth program for Ajax’s during his formative years, and it proved to be a smart choice as he’d break through at the Amsterdam giants, ultimately making 99 appearances, during which time he registered 23 goals and 16 assists before moving onto Lille.

However, his time in France wasn’t as prolific and Villa ultimately picked him up in the Championship, where he has since gone on to become a trusted squad player. He may not always have a guaranteed a starting berth under Dean Smith, but the two-time Dutch international has seldom put a foot wrong when called upon.

Marten de Roon

Sparta Rotterdam appearances: 63

Current club: Atalanta

The other member of the Netherlands squad at Euro 2020 who graduated from Sparta’s academy. Unlike the other three, Marten de Roon hasn’t looked like scoring and that’s because the Atalanta midfielder is focused on doing what he does best; dubbed ‘The Wavebreaker’ in Italy for his ability to break up attacks​, he’s been doing that in abundance at these championships.

After leaving Sparta in 2012, the Zwijndrecht-born footballer enjoyed a spell at Heerenveen before moving to Serie A with Atalanta. However, it was a brief stay (2015/16) and he soon joined Middlesbrough the following season. But, his time in England was equally as short (2016/17) and following their Premier League demotion, De Roon returned to Atalanta where he has risen to prominence.

Kevin Strootman

Sparta Rotterdam appearances: 83

Current club: Genoa (on loan from Marseille)

Before the arrival of De Roon there was Kevin Strootman, who also made the journey from the Eredivisie to Italy’s top division, via FC Utrecht and PSV post-Sparta. It was there he also earned a moniker, La Lavatrice (‘The Washing Machine’), for his ability to clean up play by winning back the ball and then distributing it.

Until recently he was a mainstay in the Dutch national team, as a squad player, but he hasn’t been called up since late 2020, and that’s mainly due to his form at club level. Since leaving Roma, where he made over 100 league appearances, Strootman has struggled to recapture his past form and now finds himself at Marseille. However, it’s hard to see him enjoying a long-term future at the Ligue 1 club after they sent him out on loan in January to Genoa.

Jetro Willems

Sparta Rotterdam appearances: 16

Current club: Eintracht Frankfurt

Before this summer Jetro Willems held the record for being the youngest player at a European Championship when he turned out for Oranje in their ill-fated Euro 2012 campaign. Bert van Marwijk’s decision to select him surprised many and once that feeling of shock subsided, a lot of folks would soon predict a bright career for the Dutch left-back. It’s been anything but since leaving PSV four summers ago. The 27-year-old — who last played for Oranje in 2016 — will become a free agent once his Eintracht Frankfurt contract runs out ahead of the new season.