When discussing Ajax, you can’t help but acknowledge their world-renowned youth academy, which has in the past been compared to Harvard University.
Hyperbolic as that may sound, there is a good reason why many have lavished praise upon De Toekomst (The Future, in English) if not outright attempted to recreate its magic.
Some of football’s greatest players walked through its hallowed halls, from Johan Cruyff to Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder in more recent times.
To celebrate their steadfastness to youth development, the Amsterdammers have since 1994 awarded a Talent of the Year prize named after legendary marksman Marco van Basten.
Among the early winners are Benni McCarthy, Cristian Chivu, Rafael van der Vaart and Maxwell, all of whom have gone on to achieve great things. But what of the most immediate recipients? We’ve taken a look back at the last ten award holders see what they’ve been up to since.
2011: Christian Eriksen
Ajax appearances: 162
Career path: Ajax, Tottenham, Inter Milan
As you’ll soon notice, the relationship between Danish football and Ajax is a special one indeed. Søren Lerby, Jesper Olsen, Michael Laudrup and Frank Arnesen represented the club with great distinction and the same could be said for Christian Eriksen, who generated worldwide headlines before turning 20. An instrumental part of Frank de Boer’s three championship-winning teams (scoring 23 goals and creating 46 more across 94 matches), it was inevitable that he’d leave the Dutch capital and Tottenham ultimately won his signature. Eriksen’s stock rose substantially in North London, where he reached a Champions League final at the Amsterdammers’ expense. An uneasy collaboration with Spurs boss Jose Mourinho saw the Dane depart for Inter Milan, where he continues to find his footing.
2012: Ricardo van Rhijn
Ajax appearances: 163
Career path: Ajax, Club Brugge, AZ, Heerenveen, Emmen
The loss of Gregory van der Wiel (another former Marco van Basten Award winner) to Paris Saint-Germain presented an opportunity for Ricardo van Rhijn, which he subsequently grabbed with both hands. Van Rhijn was another full-back who loved to get forward and lifted three consecutive Eredivisie titles before losing his spot. After registering 163 appearances in all competitions, during which time he created no fewer than 13 goals and netted six himself, the eight-time capped Dutch international relocated to Club Brugge but never really settled in Belgium before returning home. Van Rhijn joined AZ initially on loan before a spell at Heerenveen, whom he left in 2019 for FC Emmen. There, he still currently plies his trade.
2013: Viktor Fischer
Ajax appearances: 111
Career path: Ajax, Middlesbrough, Mainz 05, FC Copenhagen
Remember us mentioning the Danish-Ajax connection? Well, here’s another member of that club. Having been part of Ajax’s excellent 2011-12 NextGen Series team, and famously scoring a semi-final hat-trick against Liverpool, big things were expected of Viktor Fischer and for a while it seemed he was destined to fulfil those lofty expectations. A man-of-the-match performance against fierce rivals PSV in late 2012 (scoring once and creating another in a 3-1 home win) truly propelled him to stardom.
He ultimately couldn’t sustain those heights, with a serious thigh injury keeping him on the sidelines for more than a year. Understandably the Dane lost his spot and soon became surplus to requirements (leaving after producing 33 senior goals); he struggled to rediscover that old form at Middlesbrough or Mainz but has since joined FC Copenhagen we’re starting to see Fischer back in the groove.
2014: Davy Klaassen
Ajax appearances: 208
Career path: Ajax, Everton, Werder Bremen, Ajax
Someone who came up with Fischer was Davy Klaassen and from the onset many, including his biggest supporter Johan Cruyff, saw great things. Once settled into Ajax’s starting lineup under Frank de Boer’s leadership, the aforementioned legendary ‘number 14’ favourably compared him to Toni Kroos and Xavi as an example of how a midfield player should dictate the game.
Like Fischer, he was dogged with injuries and consequently missed a chunk of his formative years. But that only spurred him on and in due time, Klaasen was named club skipper.
After leading the Amsterdammers to a first major European final in over 20 years, he’d depart for Everton but that spell in Merseyside never took off and he made just 16 appearances in all competitions. Werder Bremen acquired his signature, which led to a mini-renaissance that caught Ajax’s eye. After losing another youth graduate in Donny van de Beek last summer, they re-signed Klaassen, who has since become an integral fixture in Erik ten Hag’s current side.
2015: Anwar El Ghazi
Ajax appearances: 100
Career path: Ajax, Lille, Aston Villa
If there’s one position, bar the ‘number nine’ role, which has seen its fair share of personnel changes down the years, it’s on the flanks. The winger, it seemed, was becoming an endangered species, at least in the Netherlands, but those fears were soon alleviated in the early 2010s. However, gone were the days of his sole purpose being to hug the touchline while getting chalk on his boots and pumping cross after cross. Instead, the modern wide forward is an entirely new beast and in Anwar El Ghazi, who modelled his playing style on idol Cristiano Ronaldo, the record Dutch champions thought they had a perfect representation.
As you’re beginning to see here, there’s a growing pattern: El Ghazi bagged nine goals and eight assists in 31 league appearances during his breakout campaign before going two goals better in four games fewer the following season. The arrival of Peter Bosz coincided with him losing his spot and that eventually led to El Ghazi joining Lille, where he enjoyed a modest spell. Now at Aston Villa, he’s resurfaced to prominence and that could potentially lead to an international re-call. Frank de Boer, the man who presided over his professional debut, is now tasked with leading Oranje into Euro 2021 and beyond.
2016: Riechedly Bazoer
Ajax appearances: 71
Career path: Ajax, Wolfsburg, Porto (loan), Utrecht (loan), Vitesse
The worry for Ajax in this post-Bosman era is losing a young talent before they mature. All the Amsterdammers can do is lay down a road map and it’s up to whomever they’re guiding to agree with it or not. It seemed for a while Riechedly Bazoer was going to be that dynamic midfielder who was missing from their starting lineup. He immediately forged a telepathic partnership with Nemanja Gudelj but tasting riches as well as lacking application saw him not only lose his spot but leave the club altogether. Wolfsburg expected more than what they got and FC Porto — albeit having signed Bazoer temporarily — handed the Dutchman just three senior appearances. Yet to celebrate his 25th birthday, the Utrecht-born footballer is flourishing at Vitesse but no longer playing in the middle. Rather, he’s transformed into a regal centre-back.
2017: Kasper Dolberg
Ajax appearances: 119
Career path: Silkeborg IF, Ajax, Nice
Kasper Dolberg was another youngster recommended to Ajax by the esteemed talent scout John Steen Olsen, who also played a key role in Zlatan Ibrahimović being signed. Again, so much pressure was placed on Dolberg’s young shoulders. The brilliance of youth is in fearlessness, and Denmark’s latest sensation took those lofty expectations in his stride. He immediately became a goal machine and was drawing parallels with the club’s all-time best. But good things never last and changes in management plus injuries saw the man christened by supporters ‘Goalberg’ lose his place in the pecking order. A change of scenery was needed, and Dolberg, after bagging 45 goals in 119 games, opted for Nice, where he’s slowly rediscovering that initial devastating form.
2018: Matthijs de Ligt
Ajax appearances: 117
Career path: Ajax, Juventus
Once every generation, you stumble on a talent wise beyond their years. Matthijs de Ligt, who is still Ajax’s youngest-ever captain, fits that bill. It’s crazy to say by the age of 20 it felt like he outgrew the Eredivisie, much like Ronaldo while turning out for PSV during the mid-90s. He played an instrumental role in De Godenzonen’s incredible run to a first Champions League semi-final since 1996 two seasons ago. On the domestic front, his leadership helped Ajax lift their eighth domestic double. A who’s who of European super clubs wrestled for his services with Juventus ultimately succeeding and it’s fair to say the choice was heavily influenced by the prospect of learning from modern centre-back greats like Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
2019: Noussair Mazraoui
Ajax appearances: 97
Career path: Ajax
Emerging around the same time De Ligt’s skills were impressing observers and suitors alike was midfielder-cum-full-back Noussair Mazraoui, who currently remains as the Amsterdammers’ first choice right-back, though he has on some occasions played further afield like during his academy years. Given how Ten Hag likes to set up Ajax, the 23-year-old often takes up an auxiliary winger role, but he’s yet to be as devastating as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Achraf Hakimi, the leaders in his position. To date this season, he’s created six goals while scoring five himself.
2020: Sergiño Dest
Ajax appearances: 38
Career path: Ajax, Barcelona
Providing stiff competition for Mazraoui and keeping him on his toes was Sergiño Dest, and for a period it seemed the Dutch-born American international held all the cards. But for whatever reason, he let it slip and found himself in a backup role. At times, Dest’s ability when on the backfoot was being questioned. Some felt his willingness to attack often came at the expense of those primary duties he was tasked with, namely keeping check on the opposition’s forward. That said, no one denied his obvious talent. Barcelona, now led by former Dutch national team boss Ronald Koeman, reportedly beat off competition from Bayern Munich to sign him. Now plying his trade at the Camp Nou, subsequently linking up with former Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong, he’s often held down a regular starting position and even found the net.