AZ & Elftal: An Unusual Coincidence
Wout Weghorst’s repeated exclusion brings to the forefront a somewhat strange history of players groomed at the Alkmaar club and their position in the Netherlands national team.
It’s business as usual for Wout Weghorst. The in-form striker was on target once again in VfL Wolfsburg’s 2-1 win over Werder Bremen. The 28-year-old’s 17th league goal of the season helped his side strengthen their third place in the table and move closer to securing a spot in the lucrative Champions League next season.
A day earlier Weghorst had received by-now-familiar news that coach Frank de Boer had left him out of the 24-man Netherlands squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Turkey, Latvia and Gibraltar. Even if the player had any frustration within him he was smart enough to camouflage it while interacting with the media afterwards.
“The whole topic is very disappointing, but what else can I say?” Weghorst was quoted as saying. Since his move to Wolfsburg in June 2018, the Borne-born has impressed at the club level, his goal against Bremen being his 50th overall in the Bundesliga. However, neither his goal-scoring exploits nor his overall consistency has convinced the managers of the Nederlands Elftal – Netherlands national football team – to include him.
Ronald Koeman at least attempted to give a semblance of a reason for his preference for Luuk de Jong, a striker who has had an inconsistent if not inglorious career at best, and more often than not is a bench warmer at Sevilla – has scored just four goals in 25 games this season.
“If you really have to force something, I think that Luuk is better at it than Weghorst,” Koeman has been quoted by Voetbal International. During the course of his tenure the former national team manager kept reiterating what Weghorst needed to do to get selected.
“He must continue to score like this. He must also show that he improves throughout his game and not only focus on goals. He can do even better in that. But there is no doubt that he is enormously important for his club and he has a high return. That is of course what it is all about, that is clear.” However, Koeman’s successor either doesn’t have cohesive reasoning behind his decision, or is not willing to discuss it in the media.
“At the moment I have chosen between Luuk and Wout. At the moment I choose Luuk,” said De Boer, in a rather bland response during the press conference ahead of the qualifier against Turkey. Even as Weghorst’s struggles to convince his manager and secure a place in Elftal continues his case also brings to the fore an unusual coincidence.
AZ is one of the only two clubs – the other being Twente Enschede – to break the dominance of the traditional Big Three of Dutch football – Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord – and win the Eredivisie. The Alkmaar club may not have been as prolific in terms of silverware as Ajax and PSV – Feyenoord has been an inconsistent side since the glorious period in the late 1960s and early 1970s – but have had their share of achievements in their comparatively shorter history.
Alkmaar Zaanstreek have captured the Eredivisie on two occasions (in 1981 and 2009), won the KNVB-Beker (Dutch Cup) on three occasions and were finalists (lost to Ipswich) in the 1980-81 UEFA Cup – a precursor to the Europa League. Ajax and PSV apart, the Alkmaar team has also been the most successful Dutch side in Europe in recent years, with a UEFA Cup semi-final appearance in 2004-05 to go with forays to the last eight of the same competition in 2006-07, 2011-12 and 2013-14.
Had the coronavirus pandemic not brought to a premature end the 2019-20 Eredivisie season, AZ had a good chance of securing their third title, and in the current campaign they look set to finish in the top three, possibly in second. However, it is also a fact that irrespective of those successes none of the players who made their breakthrough at the club have gone on to make a significant impact with the Elftal.
In fact, the club struggles to get a look-in into the national team crowded with players from the Big Three and those plying their trade across Europe. One look at the national sides in the last three major international tournaments that the Netherlands has participated in clearly indicates this. The Oranje side that reached the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, for instance, had only one AZ player, and he (Stijn Schaars) never featured in the tournament.
The Dutch squad for Euro 2012 didn’t have a single representation from the Alkmaar club, ditto for the Dutch side that finished third in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Blame it on the absence of star quotient, AZ’s overall reputation among the powers that be, the palpable prejudice towards players playing at the bigger clubs in Europe, the managers preferring to play it safe, recurring injuries, drop in form or sheer bad luck, facts remain none of the players who made their first impression at the Alkmaar club has managed to make a similar impression with the Elftal.
Mind you, this has got nothing to do with the number of games played…but the overall impact a player has had with the Elftal. The likes of Denny Landzaat, Hugo Hovenkamp, Jan Peters, Joris Mathijsen and Ron Vlaar – all of whom had their initial footprints in Alkmaar – played a decent number of matches for the Elftal, but were never indispensable per se, and definitely not missed when they got omitted.
It’s imperative here to mention that even though Weghorst is doing exceeding well at Wolfsburg it was at Alkmaar that he made his breakthrough. The tall forward inspired the Cheeseheads to successive KNVB-Beker finals in 2016-17 and 2017-18, and third place in the Eredivisie in the latter season. In fact, it was Weghorst’s impressive form and the many goals he scored during his second season that convinced Koeman to include him in the national team for a friendly in March 2018 – and use him as a substitute in the final minutes during the loss against England.
However, since his debut, Weghorst has made just four appearances for the Elftal, three of them in friendlies. His last appearance in national colors was in the Euro qualifier against Estonia in November 2019, when he came in as a substitute (for De Jong) and played for less than half an hour. In fact all his four outings from the Elftal have been from the bench and not surprisingly, Weghorst is yet to open his account for the national side.
Photo: Reuters/Michael Kooren/File Photo
Even as experts time and again call for his inclusion, and Oranje fans are left frustrated by his repeated omission, Weghorst, who turns 29 this August, irrespective of his talent and form is inadvertently set to join a legion of ex-AZ players who struggled to make any notable impression with the Elftal. Here’s a lowdown on a few other members of the not-so-enviable list:
One of the best strikers of all time Kist was the first Dutchman to win the European Golden Shoe – awarded to the leading goal-scorer in a calendar year, his tally of 34 goals earning him the honor in 1978-79. The Steenwijk-born played in AZ colors for the majority of his career, helping the Cheeseheads win their maiden Eredivisie title and three domestic cups, while also taking them to their first, and so far only, European final.
However, despite scoring more than 200 goals and playing an influential role at Alkmaar, Kist couldn’t exert the same influence with the Elftal. The fact that he was part of the national team when it was on a decline could be one of the reasons. Another factor could have the contrasting styles of play. The Elftal played with the 4-3-3 formation, used by clubs like Ajax and Feyenoord, while AZ had a bulk of its success playing in the 4-4-2 formation.
While the Alkmaar club did indeed deliver the skeleton for the Elftal in that time, the period in transition – having lost so many key players – was tough and making a tactical adjustment as per convenience wasn’t possibly as convenient, and getting an alignment of styles proved to be difficult. Whatever may have been the reason fact is Kist found the back of the net on only four occasions in his 21 appearances for the Elftal.
A majority of Opdam’s footballing career was spent in Alkmaar. The centre back played for a dozen years and made more than 400 appearances – in all competitions – for the Cheeseheads. He was a key figure in the club’s rebuilding and was part of the squad that reached the last four stages at the UEFA Cup in 2004-05, their best result in Europe since that 1981 final.
Soon after Opdam earned himself a place in the national side, and a maiden appearance, in a win over Romania in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers in June. Four months later, the central defender scored his first (and only) international goal even as Elftal got the better of the Czech Republic. However, when the then Netherlands coach Marco van Basten picked his 23-member team for the tournament in Germany, Opdam was a notable exclusion – his appearances for Elftal getting restricted to eight.
Demy de Zeeuw
De Zeeuw was someone Louis van Gaal could rely on. He was a crucial member of an AZ squad that won the Eredivisie in the 2008-09 season, ending the Alkmaar club’s 28-year championship drought. The Apeldoorn-born went onto achieve more domestic success with Ajax.
However, as is the case with most Dutch players in the last two decades or so, De Zeeuw’s desire to step out of the Netherlands as also the club of his choice ensured a career that promised much delivered little. The midfielder did make 25-odd appearances for the Elftal but it was not enough to make an impact. Both Van Basten and Bert van Marwijk had a wealth of resources to choose from, and a player needed to be at his best at all times to merit selection. Unfortunately for De Zeeuw that was not the case.
Another player who made his first impression with AZ, Lens played his part in the club’s title triumph in 2008–09. At the club level the attacker would go onto have further success at both PSV and Dynamo Kyiv but for the Elftal he didn’t have the desired impact.
It is not that Lens didn’t get his chances. Though Van Marwijk excluded him from the final 23 for the 2010 World Cup, Van Gaal not only drafted in his former ward for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers but also named him for the tournament proper.
The player, who plies his trade in Turkey these days, was impressive in the qualifiers and also played a bulk of the Elftal’s games in Brazil. However, in a squad where the existing attacking options like Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder were consistently impressing, and there was the emergence of Memphis Depay, Lens got lost somewhere in between.
Another important member of that 2009 title-winning AZ side, Schaars once earned comparisons to England legend and current Rangers manager Steven Gerrard. While it is a fact that injuries restricted any long-term impact he could have had, he also failed to make the most of the opportunities he got. As a result, while Van Marwijk included him in the squad for both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Schaars did not play in any of the Elftal’s matches in the competitions proper.
Maher is a perfect example of promising a mountain and delivering a mole hill. The Morocco-born made his debut for the Cheeseheads in the 2010/11 UEFA Europa League and became the youngest scoring debutant for a Dutch club in that competition, with his strike against BATE Borisov. He went onto help AZ win the 2013 KNVB-Beker, the last occasion the club won silverware.
Photo: Soccrates Images – Getty Images
His early success at club level meant Van Marwijk named him in the provisional squad for Euro 2012, even though he didn’t make the final cut. While Van Gaal did give him chances Maher failed to impress. And it has been the case since.
This is a player who has featured for the best clubs in Dutch football. Viergever made his first impression with AZ – captaining the side to the KNVB-Beker title in 2013, was part of that young Ajax squad that reached the Europa League final in 2017 and is now a regular starter at PSV. However, while the defender’s place in the playing XI at Eindhoven is a certainty the same cannot be said about his role with the Elftal – where he has been restricted to just three appearances so far.
Janssen’s career followed a similar trajectory as Weghorst, albeit with different results. After showing early promise with Almere – as Weghorst had done at Heracles Almelo – Janssen made an instant impression at AZ, becoming the season’s top scorer (with 27 goals) and winning the Johan Cruyff Trophy – awarded to the Dutch Football Talent of the Year.
His success ensured a national call-up, and to his credit, Janssen’s initial period with the Elftal was a success – the player scoring all of his seven international goals in a 15-month period between 2016 and 2017. Then the player made what can now be labeled a career blunder. Instead of honing his craft further at AZ Janssen did what most Dutch players in recent years have done – accept the first available offer and move out.
The forward opted to join Tottenham Hotspur, with the English club paying the Alkmaar side 17 million pounds (or 20 million euros) – the most the Cheeseheads had made from a player’s sale. To say the decision backfired would be an understatement. The player has since moved to Mexico, plying his trade with Monterrey, and even though he is only 26, a return to the fold with the Elftal seems a long shot at best, especially considering the number of talented youngsters coming up the ranks.
Yet another talented youngster to emerge from the AZ stables, Til’s impressive form with the senior team earned him an international call up in March 2018. In fact in that friendly – a 3-0 win over Portugal – Koeman handed the midfielder his debut, Til replacing Kenny Tete in the 78th minute of the match. Unfortunately for the youngster, that remains his sole international appearance.
Another hasty decision, a nightmare move to Spartak Moscow and subsequent loan spells at SC Freiburg has ensured a once-promising player has gone off the radar. Til was also part of a recent resurgence at AZ, the club having done well in the last two to three seasons. However, even the most consistent players of this Alkmaar team, the likes of Calvin Stengs, Myron Boadu, Owen Wijndal and Teun Koopmeiners are yet to become confirmed choices in the national team.
First Ronald Koeman and now Frank de Boer prefer playing it safe and sticking to the tried and tested options. Irrespective of the explanation behind their exclusion, the fact remains that it’s an unusual coincidence and a rather strange history that AZ and the Elftal share.
By: Bikash Mohapatra