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How Ajax hero Van de Beek overcame tragedy to become Champions League star

The 22-year-old has had to deal with personal trauma amid his rise to stardom with Ajax, whom he has put on the verge of the Champions League final

Ajax’s journey to the Champions League semi-finals has been an inspirational tale of a daring and exciting team upsetting bigger European rivals with fast, unpredictable football.

Powered by a group of promising homegrown stars, they have all of the hallmarks of a classic Ajax side.

And if there is one young man, among the many heroes in Erik ten Hag’s team, who most fits the profile of a typical Ajax player, it is Donny van de Beek.

A graduate of the famous De Toekomst youth academy, Van de Beek has spent the majority of his life in Amsterdam being shaped by the philosophy that propelled the great teams of previous eras to European glory.

Immersed in an environment steeped in its prestigious history, he grew up sharing the club’s dream of replicating success that was achieved before he was born.

Blessed with another group of gifted players who have dismantled Real Madrid, outclassed Juventus and beat Tottenham to hold a 1-0 aggregate lead midway through the semi-final tie, that ambition is no longer as wild as it once seemed.

The scorer of that crucial goal and Ajax’s best player in the first leg in London, Van de Beek’s displays in Europe and the Eredivisie have illustrated his importance alongside Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic, Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt.

Van de Beek’s constant movement around the attack, eye for space, good technique and simple but effective passing mean he fits right in as they look for holes in opposition defences through quick and imaginative combinations.

His invasive runs into dangerous positions and composure once there have helped him blossom into one of their most effective players, as only Tadic and Ziyech have been directly involved in more goals than Van de Beek (28) in all competitions this season.

Though he is not the only academy graduate in a team that also boasts De Ligt, Noussair Mazraoui, Daley Blind and Joel Veltman, Van de Beek is such a neat fit that it is hard to imagine him in another team. 

The 22-year-old’s roots with Ajax run deep and he has been through life-changing experiences on the route to stardom in the Johan Cruijff Arena.

The Nijkerkerveen native was only 10 when he joined up with the capital club’s youth setup. He had spent his early years with local club Veensche Boys before the big teams started eyeing him for their academies.

He narrowed his options down to two teams and came close to joining Vitesse because he was disappointed with his initial trial at Ajax, but the Amsterdam side turned his head when they brought him back to train with his future team.

As flattering as all the interest must have been, it was secondary to Van de Beek’s concern for his younger brother Rody, who was in hospital at the time with a tumour on his back.

Rody’s health was a recurring worry for the family but the way his younger brother came through the scares made an impression on Donny.

“Those moments I saw him again after the operation, then you know that he really has always been there for you,” Rody told Nu Sport in January this year. “Donny is strong, but it also hurt him.

“I think he sometimes managed to draw strength from it in games, but sometimes he was less interested in training or playing a match.”

Van de Beek was lucky to count on support from another inspirational presence in his life at Ajax.

When his brother was recovering from an operation, Abdelhak Nouri paid tribute to his sibling in a youth game against PSV by revealing a white t-shirt with a picture of Rody’s face and “Sterkte!” (Strength) printed on it.

The seeds of a beautiful on-field partnership between Donny and Appie had already been planted by then and their talent grew as they eased through the youth system. They became best friends and the Van de Beek and Nouri families developed a strong relationship.

Van de Beek and Nouri were the stars of the academy for a long time and fans were eagerly anticipating their arrival in the first team for years. They were delightful to watch together, even off the field.

“Abdelhak is a fantastic player,” Van de Beek said. “You can’t predict what he’ll do next. Every moment he’s able to do something magnificent.

“You can always enjoy him as a spectator. As a person, he’s always relaxed and always fun.”

Devastatingly skilful, Nouri could play to the fullest of his wild imagination with his manipulation of the ball and great passes. He had the perfect accomplice in the youngster nicknamed ‘Maradonny’ and they racked up goals, assists and youth league titles before graduating to Jong Ajax in 2015.

While they were both tearing up Dutch football’s second tier in 2016-17 to guide Jong Ajax to second place, they were also being eased in to the senior side during the team’s surprise journey to the Europa League final. 

De Ligt, De Jong and Justin Kluivert were coming through, too. Ziyech’s arrival had added a spark Ajax had been missing since Christian Eriksen’s departure and David Neres had just arrived to shake up right wing.

Excitement was building around Amsterdam and the prospect of Nouri and Van de Beek breaking through was a big reason why.

The feeling of devastation that accompanied the news of Nouri’s collapse of a heart arrhythmia during a friendly in summer 2017 tore through Dutch football and sent emotional shockwaves around the world.  

Since the golden prospect fell into a coma and suffered severe and irreparable brain damage, he has been in the minds of Ajax players and fans as much as he was when his bright smile was lighting things up around the club.

It is because of Nouri that 34 – his shirt number – has taken on incredible significance at Ajax.

In the 34th minute of Sunday’s KNVB Beker final against Willem II, Ajax fans started applauding and singing his name a few minutes before they scored their first in a 4-0 win that brought an end to a five-year spell without a trophy.

It is the latest of the countless tributes that have been paid to the beloved figure over the last two years and there will be many more to come.

But perhaps none will top that of his good friend Van de Beek, who felt the power of Nouri by his side when he knocked one past Juventus in the 34th minute of their quarter-final tie.

“That can’t be a coincidence,” he said afterwards. “Very special, I will never forget that again.”

Nouri and Van de Beek were expected to achieve greatness together.

By always keeping his friend in his heart and the forefront of his mind during their hunt for Champions League and Eredivisie titles this year, Van de Beek is making sure they still can.

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