They were dancing on the streets of Amsterdam as the Netherlands defeated Uruguay 3-2 in the 2010 World Cup semi-final to make it to the most important match in football. Of course, they were dancing all across Holland, but the biggest party was in the biggest city, the city that half the members of this Dutch squad had once called home.
There can be no underestimating the role Ajax’s famed Toekomst academy played in Holland’s run to the final in South Africa. Every second member of Bert van Marwijk’s squad had spent at least part of their career at the country’s most successful club, while an incredible seven members of the squad were all on Ajax’s books in the 2005/06 season. This is their story.
While time would later add extra prestige to the 2005/06 season at Ajax, the only major honour they scooped up at the time was the KNVB Cup. Following victories over FC Eindhoven, Heerenveen and Roda JC, they were set for a final clash with PSV Eindhoven, that year’s Eredivisie champions, in Rotterdam.
Five of the Ajax players who featured that day would go to South Africa with the national team four years later. They were goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, centre-back John Heitinga, midfielder Wesley Sneijder, striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and winger Ryan Babel, who came on as a second-half substitute.
For Stekelenburg, the 2005/06 campaign was his first as the undisputed starter at Ajax. He had joined Ajax in 1997 as a 15-year-old and worked his way through the youth categories, debuting as a 19-year-old in 2002. The goalkeeper then made nine, 10 and 11 Eredivisie appearances across the 2002/03, 2003/04 and 2004/05 campaigns, before taking over in the eighth week of the 2005/06 campaign and starting every subsequent match. He truly blossomed during that campaign and two years later was picking up the Ajax Player of the Season prize, before inheriting the national team’s gloves from Edwin van der Sar.
John Heitinga and Ryan Babel may both have been younger than Stekelenburg, but they had already made over 20 Eredivisie appearances the previous campaign and were well used to representing the senior side. Under Danny Blind, who had replaced Ronald Koeman as coach in March of 2005, they both improved significantly and were given even more responsibly. Heitinga had already worked with Blind in the youth set-up and thrived under the Dutch legend, with only injuries stopping his 2005/06 campaign from being even more impressive.
Then there were the established duo of Nigel de Jong and Wesley Sneijder, with the former coming into the 2005/06 campaign as the reigning Ajax Player of the Season and with Sneijder the reigning joint-top scorer. Both were the same age and both had spent their whole footballing lives in the Ajax academy at Toekomst and had come through it together, so they were so in sync and had already played 88 matches together at a senior level for club and country by the summer of 2005, in addition to countless youth team games on the academy’s pitches.
De Jong, though, wouldn’t be around for much longer. In December of that 2005/06 campaign the defensive midfielder announced that he’d be leaving Ajax in the winter window, as he moved to Bundesliga side Hamburg to join Rafael van der Vaart, another Ajax graduate who would become a key member of Holland’s run to the 2010 World Cup final and a player who had left Amsterdam in the summer of 2005.
Coming in that January, though, was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The striker was an alumni of the De Graafschap and PSV youth systems and was signed from Heerenveen after netting 17 times across his first 15 matches of the season. In Amsterdam, his impact was immediate and it was immense. In 16 league matches he scored 16 times for Ajax, while he also netted the opener in their Champions League last 16 tie against Inter Milan to give Ajax a fighting chance, before they ultimately went out 3-2 on aggregate. And in the Dutch Cup, Huntelaar scored in all three matches he played for Ajax, including both goals in the final against former side PSV, as the team from Amsterdam won the match 2-1 and claimed some silverware.
Huntelaar would only stay at the Amsterdam Arena for two more seasons before Real Madrid came calling, but his relationship with Ajax was a fruitful one for him, for the club and, eventually, for the national team. Not only did he score 117 goals in 165 matches for the club, but he also started to become more associative and he was providing one assist for every four goals he scored, which was much more charitable than the one assist per 13 goals he scored for Heerenveen. It would be a reach to suggest that Huntelaar fully converted to the Ajax 4-3-3 style of total football during his brief stint at the club, but the philosophy certainly rubbed off on him and this would come in handy when on national team duty.
The last of the seven 2010 World Cup squad members to represent Ajax in that 2005/06 season was Gregory van der Wiel. Born in 1988, he is the youngest member of the Ajax seven and was just 17 in the summer of 2005, when he re-signed for Ajax after previously being shipped out of the academy to HFC Haarlem at the age of 14 because of a poor attitude. He was recalled for a trial at a youth tournament in Italy, where Ajax’s kids would take on counterparts from Juventus and Partizan Belgrade, and the young defender played well enough to be welcomed back to Toekomst. There, he improved and improved and the following season would get his break, debuting for the first team and eventually becoming a regular.
Even if Holland’s style of football in South Africa wasn’t the kind which Johan Cruyff approved of – in fact, he was explicitly critical of Van Marwijk’s approach – it cannot be denied that this time together at the Ajax academy was essential for some of the chemistry and understanding on display as Holland marched past Slovakia, Brazil and Uruguay. It was the kind of “physical chess” that David Winner wrote about in ‘Brilliant Orange’ and it was almost automatic.
“At Ajax, you do things again and again and again, then you repeat it some more times,” Van der Wiel put it in an interview with the New York Times. After the nth time, a through ball to Sneijder or covering for Heitinga at a set piece surely becomes natural.
Stekelenburg, Heitinga, Sneijder, De Jong, Huntelaar, Babel and Van der Wiel came to know each other at Ajax and in some cases they’d played together for a decade, helped by the fact that age groups in the Ajax academy often mix with older and younger players to provide unique challenges. Khalid Boulahrouz, André Ooijer, Eljero Elia, Sander Boschker and Rafael van der Vaart may have all departed Amsterdam by the time of that 2005/06 season, but they had been moulded by the coaches at Toekomst too.
This all led to a memorable World Cup run. Had it not been for one Andrés Iniesta goal, 2010 might have ended up being one of the very proudest years in Ajax’s storied history.