Precocious Matthijs de Ligt big reason for Ajax's Europa League run
When Matthijs de Ligt takes the field for Ajax against Manchester United in the Europa League final on Wednesday, he will become the youngest ever Dutchman to play in a European final. Born on Aug. 12, 1999 the cultured centre-back will only be 17 years and 285 days old, but he won't be overwhelmed. After all, he is used to records this season.
By netting on his debut in the cup fixture against Willem II in September, De Ligt became the second youngest scorer in Ajax history, after Clarence Seedorf. He also joined the illustrious list of stars who scored in their first game for the club, which includes Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Patrick Kluivert. His well-taken goal in the 4-1 win over Heracles in February, also saw De Ligt become one of the youngest Ajax scorers in Eredivisie -- just behind Van Basten and Ronald de Boer, but ahead of Cruyff.
Two months ago, De Ligt made more headlines as the youngest debutant for the Netherlands national team since World War II. On that day, though, it proved to be a disaster.
Danny Blind, a former centre-back himself, named the inexperienced prodigy in his starting XI for the crucial World Cup qualifier vs. Bulgaria in Sofia. With Virgil van Dijk, Jeffrey Bruma and Stefan de Vrij injured, Blind put his faith in a young man who had only started seven games for Ajax at the time. But the gamble backfired spectacularly, as De Ligt was at fault for both goals conceded in the first half. Blind then decided to substitute the defender at half-time, causing a huge outcry from fans and pundits alike.
The 2-0 defeat that left Netherlands' chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in jeopardy was bad enough, but endangering such a promising career by mistreating the youngster was even worse. Blind was immediately -- albeit belatedly -- fired, while De Ligt had to show some strong mental fortitude in the aftermath.
"I was subject to public discussion after my debut, and that was strange," De Ligt recently said in an interview with Het Parool. "Fortunately, I am able to take such things off my mind. I don't focus on the negatives. Criticism and tension are something you must learn to live with.
"I am not nervous anymore. I step onto the pitch in order to give my utmost effort -- and I can't possibly do better than that. That mindset is very important to me. I have to be calm in order to make the best decisions."
Those are words of a footballer who is mature well beyond his age. But that phenomenal attitude was easy to spot a long time ago.
Born and raised in a village of Abcoude, less than 10 kilometers from Amsterdam Arena, De Ligt was accepted into the club academy at the age of nine despite being a little overweight. Ajax scouts describe such children as "McDonald's footballers," and they can only survive the selection process if their skills are well above average.
De Ligt's talents were never in doubt and he soon got himself into shape. Since then his progress had been remarkable, and he signed his first contract in 2015. Youth coach Wim Jonk, a former Ajax star, remarked back then: "Matthijs is a modern central defender. He is two-footed, a good passer and reads the game well. He can become a true leader who helps teammates with his positive attitude."
Just a few months later, the youngster was working under Dennis Bergkamp in the senior team. Incredibly, De Ligt is too young to have seen the Arsenal idol in action -- the Non-Flying Dutchman had retired in 2006 just before De Ligt watched his first football game at the age of six -- yet they share the same heritage. De Ligt studied at the same school as Bergkamp, and is also an Ajax fan through and through.
That is why he declined numerous offers from foreign clubs throughout the years and wanted to make his grade at the beloved club. The family were wise to refuse to be represented by various agents, but rather asked a very special mentor to take care of the kid.
Barry Hulshoff, the magnificent centre-back who was part of the legendary Ajax team that won the European Cup three times in a row in the early 1970s, took De Ligt under his wing. The duo have spent long hours talking about football during the last two years, and those lessons enabled De Ligt to reach his target even sooner than expected.
The defender started the season on the Under-19 team -- then starred for the reserve team that plays in the second division -- but is an now undisputed starter for Ajax coach Peter Bosz, who said: "Matthijs organizes the defence well and takes initiative when in possession."
That tendency to build the play from behind can be dangerous -- such as when Ajax conceded a goal at Excelsior when De Ligt misplaced a simple pass -- but Bosz encourages his young players to be confident and take risks. That is how they can improve over time, and De Ligt has thrived in such surroundings.
The 17-year-old is now one of the best talents in the world in his age group, and seems to improve at a frightening pace. Moreover, he's not scared of facing big clubs like Manchester United.
"United are a richer club, but bags of money can't score goals," he said, ahead of Wednesday's Europa League final.
That is a classic Ajax phrase and, even as a teenager, De Ligt enjoys legendary status with the fans already. That bond will only become stronger if he helps lead team to lifting the trophy in Stockholm.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin