A big name on his shoulders
The business class section of a private jet, cruising through the air somewhere between the Algarve and Amsterdam, probably isn’t the setting you’d expect for a young footballer’s big break. As Ajax’s squad relaxed on their way home from a mid-season training camp in the south of Portugal last January, one of the younger members of the travelling party was beckoned to the vacant seat next to manager Peter Bosz. This had been the fresh-faced player’s first prolonged exposure to first-team training, and as such he was only just getting his head round the idea that he was a professional. Having taken a seat next to his gaffer, the youngster was told he had sufficiently impressed Ajax’s coaching staff and would from now on remain with the first team on a full-time basis. The starlet’s 18th birthday was still four months away. “I was told I had played well and taken my chance,” Justin Kluivert tells FourFourTwo, a year on. “The coach said that I was an exciting player. A little more than a week later, I was handed my debut in an away match against PEC Zwolle. That went pretty well too, and after the game everybody was really praising my style. But starting well is only doing half the job.” Kluivert had certainly made a decent first impression at the club and, unsurprisingly, his debut attracted extra attention due to the famous name printed across the back of his shirt. Even before that first senior appearance, pundits and fans had been speculating as to whether the young forward could follow in the footsteps of his iconic father, Patrick Kluivert – he of three Eredivisie titles, a La Liga crown with Barcelona and an iconic Champions League-winning goal. However, despite standing out on his first outing for the Amsterdam club, the younger Kluivert’s display against Zwolle actually went some way to quelling all of the comparisons. His adventurous dribbles were alternated with some very clever through-balls. This was a marauding winger, rather than a penalty box-dwelling centre forward, and a very good one at that. When interviewed by Dutch broadcaster NOS after that game, Justin removed his smartphone from his pocket and read out a message he’d received from his proud papa. “Very good game,” the message began. “So how good does it feel? Incredible, right? And this is just the start.” Kluivert the winger had made his mark on the game, and Kluivert the centre-forward agreed. On the day of his debut, Justin was 17 years and 255 days old. He beat his father to the Ajax first team by 167 days, not something many had expected to happen, including the youngster himself. Only five months earlier, during the summer of 2016, he was still in the under-19 squad and had set himself three humble goals: “My aim was to get into the U19s of the Dutch national team, make my debut with the U23s of Ajax and then train a few times with the first team,” recalls Kluivert. “But at the end of that season I was almost a regular starter for the first team, had played several games in Europe and was even included in the matchday squad for the Europa League final,” he says with a confident grin. “Things went beautifully,” he adds, perhaps understating his own overachievement. His rapid start at the Amsterdam Arena is reminiscent of his old man, who was also on the bench for a European final at the end of his first season. Once again, Justin was younger than his dad when achieving the feat, though Patrick certainly had more of an impact on the 1995 Champions League Final. He clambered off the bench to score the only goal of the game in a historic victory over Milan. Justin stayed on the sidelines as Ajax lost 2-0 to Manchester United. In the coming years, the 18-year-old hopes to follow in his father’s illustrious footsteps and succeed at the highest level of the European game – but Justin isn’t the only Kluivert looking to make lifting trophies a family business. Older brother Quincy (20) is in Vitesse Arnhem’s U23 side, younger sibling Ruben (16) is set to join up with AZ Alkmaar next season, while half-brother Shane (10) is already wowing spectators in the academy at Barcelona. The Catalan capital is also where Justin spent his formative years, in the days when his father was one of the key figures at the Camp Nou. “After matches, me and my brother Quincy would always go into the changing room, just to get some drinks,” he recalls. “That was pretty cool. I remember one time my brother went in the Jacuzzi!” When Patrick moved to Newcastle United in 2004, Justin wasn’t able to watch his dad’s games quite so regularly – his parents got divorced,
and Justin and his brothers moved to the Netherlands to live with their mum. However, their grandad would often take the three boys on ferry rides over the North Sea to Newcastle. The young Kluivert clan saw the trips as a real adventure, not that Justin can recall much of what happened when they actually reached Tyneside – most of Justin’s recollections of his father as a player have come as a result of retrospective research online. “YouTube was where I mostly discovered what kind of player he was,” he admits. That’s not to say he doesn’t at least have memories of the back end of his dad’s playing career. Justin vividly remembers being present on the day Patrick picked up the final medal of his highly successful career, when he won the 2006-07 Eredivisie title with PSV in what’s still regarded as one of the most unforgettable finales in the history of the competition. The Eindhoven outfit started the day in third place – level on points with both Ajax and Louis van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar but with a goal difference one worse than the capital club and seven worse than AZ. PSV romped to a 5-1 victory over Vitesse at the Philips Stadion and listened with glee as news filtered through that, not only had AZ surprisingly lost 3-2 to Excelsior, but Ajax had only won 2-0 away at Willem II. It meant Kluivert the Elder could pop a third Dutch title-winners’ medal on his mantelpiece. “I remember that match and the excitement,” Justin recalls fondly. “After the match, we were able to go on the pitch to celebrate. It was a great moment for us all.” By that stage, Justin had already started playing the game himself. He kicked off at the amateur club ASV De Dijk in Amsterdam, the very same side at which Patrick had begun his career 20-odd years earlier (back then, they were called ASV Schellingwoude). Like his dad, Justin soon moved on, and by 2007 he’d been drafted into Ajax’s academy. However, he still enjoyed the occasional kickabout with his friends. Justin practised his skills by spending hours playing on Amsterdam’s streets. “I was living next to a playground, where I would always play football with my brothers and friends,” he says. “Nowadays youngsters don’t play outside much, which is a shame as I think you learn your basic skills on the streets. It’s so important.” However, Kluivert reveals he didn’t stand out during his early years in Ajax’s renowned academy. “I was never the best player in my team,” he says. “I remember, for instance, when I was with the U15s, many of my team-mates jumped up to the U17 side, while I was just moved on to the U16s instead. “At the end of every season we would have evaluations in which you were told whether you’d be staying at the club or moving on. In those moments, I’ve got to admit, the thought of being sent away did cross my mind, and some of my pals were let go. Fortunately, things really took off for me when I played with the U17 team. I had matured and started to notice that I had some extra qualities the other players did not. That was the moment when I realised I had a real opportunity to become a professional.” As Kluivert’s confidence grew, his movement through the youth ranks accelerated. He soon switched from the U17s to the U19s, and within another year the teenager had secured a place in Ajax’s U23 team for the 2016-17 campaign. By December 2016, Justin had already hit the aforementioned trio of targets for the season when he made his debut for the Dutch U19 side and was invited to train with Ajax’s senior squad for the first time. That trip to the Algarve and his first-team debut followed soon after, and he’s barely looked back since, establishing himself as an important member of the squad. Having played predominantly on the right wing in his early appearances, this season he has switched to his favoured left flank. As 2017 progressed, Kluivert continued to stand out with his dribbles, bravery on the ball and long-range shooting. His best display was, without a doubt, in the Eredivisie game against Roda JC, when he blasted home a sensational hat-trick in a 5-1 win. All three of his goals were somewhat similar, with the wideman cutting inside from the left wing before firing home with his right foot. Yet, he doesn’t consider the match the pinnacle of his career so far. “It was great, but my highlight has been the Europa League final, even though I didn’t play,” he says of last May’s showdown with Man United in Stockholm. “Such an occasion is unique and just to be there was so special. You won’t experience that very often. “You could feel the impact it had all over Holland. Some of my friends sent me images of people out on the streets watching on massive TV screens. It made for a feeling as if everyone in the country, or at least in Amsterdam, was supporting us.” Before the final, Justin made sure to pick his father’s brain to get an idea of what he should expect of such a showpiece. “Of course I asked him about some of his experiences, because he’d participated in a European final before,” he says. “He gave me advice beforehand, like to keep calm and just play my own game if I got any minutes on the pitch.”
“L ONDON’S A N ATTRACTIVE CITY, BUT MY TWO MAI N GOALS ARE WINNING THE TITLE WITH AJAX AND MAKING MY HOLLAND DEBUT”
Unfortunately for Kluivert he didn’t get a run-out, but he did catch the eye of the man in the opposing dugout. Jose Mourinho knew all about Justin – in fact, the pair go way back, all the way to the days when the Special One was the assistant coach at Barcelona, and Patrick Kluivert was on the playing staff. The Manchester United manager made a beeline for the young Kluivert after the final whistle. “He said it was nice to see me again after such a long time, because he had known me when I was a baby,” he reveals. “And he said it was nice to see that I was doing well.” Kluivert insists Mourinho didn’t try to prise him away to Old Trafford, but speculation persists that United are among a host of Premier League clubs monitoring him. There’s even been rumours that Lionel Messi has asked Barcelona’s board to bring the starlet to the Camp Nou, 20 years after his father first arrived in Catalonia. “I’ve heard that as well,” says Justin. “But I really don’t know if it’s true. I’m not in contact with Messi. Only he knows whether that happened, but it’s nice to hear.” Messi, it should be noted, was in the Barça academy when Patrick was leading the first team’s attack, and is a known admirer of a man who scored more than 120 goals in six years at the club. His iconic surname may sometimes make Kluivert the centre of attention, but he’s never seen it as a burden. “I’m calm and down to earth with those kind of things,” he says. “In fact, I love to play with this name, as it’s like an honour. And maybe I can even expand the name and be even better – that would be great.” Having spent a year as Paris Saint-Germain technical director, Kluivert senior is now back at Barça, where he keeps a keen eye on the progress of young Shane – the youngest member of the family and a recent inductee to the Catalans’ fabled La Masia academy. Shane may only be 10, but he’s already acquired fame with videos of his football skills. Justin keeps in regular contact with him. “Sometimes we speak to each other via FaceTime,” he says. “It’s good fun and I’ll often give him advice. He looks up to me, so it’s really important I do everything right. He wants the same boots as me, wants to copy my shooting style and my tricks, and he can perform them all, too! Whether he’ll be even better than me I don’t know – but I hope so.” While Shane looks up to Justin, the Ajax starlet’s got his own heroes. “Ronaldinho was a phenomenon,” says the 18-year-old. “But off the pitch he wasn’t really a top professional. So these days I look up to players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, who lives for his sport as well. That’s what I want to do in my career, too, because what you show out on the pitch also reflects on how much you’re willing to sacrifice.” Kluivert’s a massive fan of the Real Madrid marksman, and loved the documentary, Ronaldo, he released in 2015. “One day I hope to make something like that about myself,” he says with a smirk. Before the start of this season, Kluivert set himself some new targets. “My two main goals are winning the Eredivisie title with Ajax and then making my debut for the Netherlands,” he says, before quickly adding, “and of course to keep improving. “I want to improve on everything. I’m still young. I give everything in training and I also make a point of trying to improve even the things that are already going well.” His ultimate dream is to play for a big club abroad – “but you have to see how you develop, to see if you can make that move,” he explains. Kluivert says he discusses every facet of his career with his mother, father and agent, Mino Raiola. “I ask other people’s opinion, but in the end it’s me who has to make the decisions.” If one day he does go abroad, several countries could be an option, including England. He admits London has a certain appeal, but insists he doesn’t have a favourite Premier League club. “It’s an attractive city. I have to say Tottenham are playing great football at the moment and really play as a team. But, in general, I don’t follow one team. Arsenal are a nice club as well, for example.” For the time being, his focus is solely on Ajax where his influence on the first team continues to grow, just over a year since his fateful flight from Portugal to Holland. “I realise things have gone quickly,” he says, staring into the middle distance for a moment. “I’ve probably surprised myself that I’ve been able to make those steps.” If he carries on at this rate, he’ll have every chance of making that famous name his own. Unless Quincy, Ruben or Shane are even better.