It is the year 2008 and a 16-year-old Joel Veltman’s footballing future seems painfully bleak, having just been afflicted by a cruciate ligament injury. Everywhere in Ajax’s world-class training centre, there are hushed sniggers around Veltman, after an incident some time earlier whereby the young defender had burst into tears after a small lashing by his coach. The young defender is fragile, physically and mentally and he is breaking.
Ajax hold a reputation of having one of the finest academies in all of Europe and it does come at a price. The culture at de Toekomst is one of competitiveness and if they feel you do not cut it, you are placed on the exit-list and your future at Ajax is seriously considered. Most do not survive the exit-list. Joel Veltman was on the exit-list.
Fast forward to the year 2013 and a 21-year-old Joel Veltman has capped off an unbelievable few weeks for himself. A man-of-the-match performance in a victory against Celtic in the Champions League, earning plaudits of the highest order from manager Frank de Boer – a quality defender in his playing days himself -, an Oranje call up and ultimately, his debut for the Netherlands.
Forget 2007, even at the start of the season, it would have been unlikely for Veltman to have thought he would find himself in such a predicament. Though he had appeared ten times the previous season, Veltman remained, primarily, with Jong Ajax (the Ajax reserves) in the Jupiler League, the Dutch second tier. He was behind Alderweireld, Moisander, Denswil and summer acquisition Mike van der Hoorn in the Ajax centreback pecking order. But only after a handful of games, the ghosts of his past came back in the form of knee problems that persisted.
However, his return saw him featuring once for Jong Ajax and then drafted onto the bench vs Utrecht. The departure of Alderweireld, injury to Moisander and the sluggish start by Mike van der Hoorn meant that suddenly, Veltman was starting for Ajax alongside his long-time friend, Stefano Denswil. Though inexperienced, the two forged a strong partnership in the centre of defence, and Veltman seemed very much in his comfort zone. He had grabbed his golden chance with two hands and bear-hugged it, and when vice-captain Moisander returned, it was not Denswil who retained his place alongside the Finn in defence, it was in fact, Veltman who had escaped the push back to the bench.
“He was not Veltman, but a veldheer (general).” quipped boss Frank de Boer after the home match against Celtic, a smart little play of words by the Ajax manager. The defender has been consistently one of Ajax’s best performers whenever he has started, be it in losses, scrappy wins or emphatic victories.
In retrospect, that cruciate ligament injury was a key turning point in Veltman’s life. As one must have sussed, Veltman was brought back from the exit-list by his coach Maarten Stekelenburg (no, NOT the Dutch goalkeeper who plays for Fulham). His coach at Ajax A2, Gery Vink had fed him confidence every day, vaguely requoting a dialogue from The Fight Club to Veltman, about how he had already seen the worst of things and he can only go up from there.
The 21-year-old himself has talked of how for many young players, an injury in circumstances like that would’ve surely signified the end of the road, the dead end to roads that never began, the end of careers that never took off. But Veltman drew strength from the bad hand he’d been dealt by life and confessed to spending almost every hour of every day in the gym, building himself up, regardless of what his future held.
At the moment, he is possibly Ajax’s first-choice centreback. Staying true to the club’s Total Football ideology, Veltman has been almost as active offensively as he has been defensively. In what has become a typical Ajax move these days, Veltman often plays pinpoint long balls up field to wingers or wingbacks and playing a high line with Moisander means that the two of them, along with the defensive midfielder, mostly Blind, effectively dictate play when Ajax are in possession.
Years of training at de Toekomst shows and Veltman’s capability and composure on the ball has found few doubters. His aerial prowess though, has been a welcome surprise, even though he does not still have the most imposing of physiques as he has consistently won his duels in the air.
Still only 21, it is quite unlikely the defender will stay at Ajax til the end of his career, but Frank de Boer would like to keep him for as long as possible, especially with the talented crop of early 20-somethings he already has at his disposal. de Boer’s ‘veldheer’ may well form an integral part of things if Ajax want to progress further in Europe in the coming seasons.
Should Veltman continue his form into the twilight of this season, he may not only find himself in the World Cup squad for the Netherlands, but may even put up a decent fight for a starting position. Something that would have been but a dream for the 16-year-old who lacked confidence and strength..