It was a rather warm night at the Friends Arena in Sweden as Ajax Amsterdam took on Manchester United to contest the final of the Europa League in 2017. The game attracted a lot of interest to me personally because I was intrigued by how Ajax had made it to the final with the youngest squad in the competition’s history.
Ajax, once a giant of the game and a breeding ground for geniuses who changed the beautiful game forever had an Ozymandias-esque undoing, but the institution holds a special reverence in the minds of football romantics.
And the charm of Amsterdam on a football pitch worked once again- this time in the shape of a 6 feet 2 inch tall, blonde central defender who was the same age as me. Donning the number 36, 17 year old Matthijs de Ligt oozed confidence and maturity that more than warranted for the youngest to feature in a Europe League final.
His display at the heart of Ajax defence was far too good for someone who went from playing against Rogier Krohne (30 year old, plays for Schalke U23’s now) and Issa Kallon (played for SC Cambuur, is now spending time in community service for having intercourse with a minor) to thwarting Mkhitariyan, Paul Pogba, Rashford and Juan Mata in a matter of months.
Ajax might have sunk 0-2 but Matthijs De Ligt’s nerve and chutzpah at such a grand stage had struck a chord among football enthusiasts.
De Ligt was born in Leiden close to Amsterdam, the exact same place where the greatest Dutch artist and one of the most important men in art history, Rembrandt, was born 393 years earlier. And it shouldn’t strike as a surprise then that de Ligt’s body of work also displays a strong resemblance to an artistic technique that Rembrandt had immortalised during his career- Chiaroscuro.
What is Chiaroscuro, you ask? Chiaro means light and scuro means dark. It is a technique that the 17th century painters employed where strong distinction was made between light and dark strokes to bestow a sense of movement and motion and the theme of contrast in the art.
Caravaggio was the first to make use of the technique but Rembrandt soon became its most popular exponent.
One look at Matthijs in action and it all becomes clear. Without the ball, he personifies the dark stroke on the canvas that imparts the painting its tenebrosity and depth where his aggression, technique and dauntlessness has managed to put world class forwards like Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Timo Werner and Thomas Muller in his pocket for the entirety of ninety minutes.
With the ball, he becomes a manifestation of the lighter, softer strokes of the brush that convey luminosity to the art. On the ball, de Ligt is as calm and radiant at building from the back and shaping his side’s attacks as Bob Dylan’s discography. He has the technique to nullify the opponent’s press and break lines with simple body swerves and surging runs. And then there’s the piercing long ball that is as fine as it is precise. Even in this case, he mimics Rembrandt whose technique was equally diverse: fluctuating from self-portraits and landscapes to allegorical, historical and mythological art.
Now captain at Ajax at just 19, de Ligt managed to score on his debut for the Amsterdam based club joining the company of another elite band of Dutch artists: Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Patrick Kluivert and if the signs weren’t strong enough already, he also became the youngest debutant in Netherlands’ history since World War II. However, that game ended up being a nightmare for him. Matthijs was at fault for both the goals the Oranje conceded against Bulgaria in a crucial World Cup qualifier but it would take more than a bad display – and the public critique that came with it – to down his temperament and ethos. He has since then gone on to become a first team regular and has marked stellar performances against the 2016 Euro Cup winners Portugal, against whom he also fetched two assists, the 2014 World Cup winners Germany and current World Champions France.
Along with Frenkie de Jong, another young Ajax starlet, de Ligt has been extremely important in the resuscitation of the Dutch national team that has endured failure and ridicule over the last few years.
Quite like Rembrandt, Matthijs’ prodigious talent has overachieved for someone his age and he now attracts the attention of European powerhouses just like Rembrandt did from art schools in Netherlands, France and Italy.
With talent, comes public intrigue and media speculation and at 19, off-the-field penchant for clubs, celebrity status, nightlife and commercialisation might seem alluring and enchanting but de Ligt – the footballer – is here to stay.
Off the field, Matthijs leads a quiet life bordering on the discreet and as admitted by his father, Frank de Ligt likes to spend time with his family and friends. To his son, football always comes first and to that extent, Matthijs spends a lot of time studying his game to better improve his movement and positioning.
In a letter to famous Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens’ father, Constantijn Huygens, who was his patron, Rembrandt similarly wrote that his motive in life and in his art was to achieve de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid which translates to, the greatest and most natural movement.
Just like de Ligt, Rembrandt was also obsessed with the single minded pursuit of the immaculate in his body of work, some 350 years ago.
With the achievements he has already garnered and the way he has proved his merit so far, it is probably de Ligt’s last season at Ajax who are unfortunately no longer financially or sportingly capable of holding on to their generational talents.
A move to England, Spain or Italy would soon follow Matthijs with Manchester City, FC Barcelona and Juventus all interested in securing the services of the man who is already being recognised as the next behemoth in defensive football. And it goes without saying, that he needs to emerge out of the shadows that haunt the club of Ajax and the Dutch domestic league as a whole and embrace the brightest lights of European football to do this.
It sure will be very interesting to see him grow as a player and a person, to see whether he will be able to adapt to the challenges that life and professional football will throw at his magnificent feet. But if Matthijs continues on the high road that he’s on and continues learning and being committed to the game he has loved since he was 6, he will more likely than not, fulfil the plaudits that his colossal potential so richly deserves.
With years of undeterred determination, commitment and obsession to his craft, Rembrandt had become a painter of light and dark and an artist that upheld realism on his canvas. It is time for Matthijs de Ligt to become a footballer of light and dark and uphold boldness, composure and genius on a football pitch and elevate his career to become an all-time great.