Every morning when Frenkie de Jong drives through the gates of Barcelona’s training ground, he feels grateful.
“At Barcelona the weather is fantastic, the training sessions are super fun,” his famous smile lights up. “Every day I appreciate that I’m allowed to be on the field with these players. It’s fantastic.”
No Barcelona outfield player has appeared in more games this season than the 22-year-old Dutch midfielder. Barcelona currently sits atop La Liga’s table with one hand on the league title.
Midfielders are expected to play if safe but I like to do things of my free will, such as dribbling.
It's not risky when I don't lose possession."
—Confidence is the cornerstone of Frenkie de Jong's nonconformity
But to de Jong’s groupies, winning isn’t everything. Above all, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood—the English band which his first name Frenkie is a Dutchified tribute of, de Jong brings Maximum Joy.
The Oranje playmaker often takes what appear to be crazy risks, like an eight-year-old on the school playground, dribbling through serried ranks of opponents near his own goal; and thrillingly, it almost always comes off. He doesn’t need a shirt number. Nobody plays football like Frenkie de Jong.
Born in the southern Dutch village of Arkel, to a football-mad family (his grandfather’s tomb is engraved with a referee’s whistle), de Jong was scouted by local professional team Willem II at age seven.
Like almost every Dutch kid, he dreamt of playing for Barcelona, the club that defines and is defined by Johan Cruyff, the greatest Dutch player ever.
Frenkie de Jong reminds me of myself.
He has the personality, the technique, the vision; essentially every attribute to excel in the role I played for Milan, Juventus, Italy.”
—Andrea Pirlo is impressed with de Jong's rendition of the deeplying playmaker for Ajax and the Netherlands
In an Instagram photo from 2015, the 18-year-old de Jong and his girlfriend smile from the stands of Camp Nou: Two tourists with tickets to see Barca. Who was he then? “I was playing for Willem II and about to go to Ajax, to play for the youth team. I’d finished school, we had come for a weekend over new year, partly because we knew Barca were playing at home.
When I was very young my family and I used to go on holiday at Costa Brava, and sometimes we’d go to Barcelona, take the stadium tour, but this was the first time I got to watch them live. Of course you hope ‘in four years’ time I’ll be here on the pitch myself’ but so do 10,000 players.”
His prospects at the time seemed dim: de Jong hadn’t even broken into Willem II’s first team. Coaches appreciated his dribbling and passing, but his risk-taking terrified them.
Ajax’s then coach Peter Bosz spoke about the time de Jong played centre-back for Ajax’s reserves in a practice game against the first team. After receiving the ball from his own keeper, Bosz recalled, “Frenkie did a feint and went right past three, four men.”
It's a shame that I never got to meet or speak with Johan Cruyff. I feel his influence everywhere, both at Ajax and Barcelona.
His vision of football has had a profound impact on the way I play."
—De Jong sees his inevitable comparison to Johan Cruyff, a rite of passage for talented Dutch playmakers, refreshingly from a tactical point of view
Bosz was irate: De Jong was supposed to play as if it were a competitive match, not try fantasy tricks. “Damn it, Frenk,” he yelled. “You wouldn’t do that in a game, would you?”
“Why not?” was de Jong’s reply.
When a coach warned him off taking risks, de Jong would usually nod obediently, then do it anyway. Capping it all is his visible joy on the field. When he beats a man you sometimes see him smiling, possibly even laughing. “I find football really fun,” de Jong agrees.
“When I’m home and there are good games on, I want to watch them. I also talk a lot, probably too much, about football. But playing is always the most enjoyable aspect of it all, I think people do see that when they watch me. I’ve always had faith in the way I play.”
Pep Guardiola was mad about Frenkie de Jong and wanted to know all about him.
I told Pep Frenkie's best quality is the extra two seconds he's always capable of buying himself. That's truly special."
—Ronald Koeman reveals top coaches from the Cruyff school were constantly monitoring de Jong's progress before his eventual transfer to Barcelona
Still, he wasn’t even a first-team regular at Ajax in the Dutch league as of summer 2018. De Jong watched the 2018 World Cup on TV, his name hardly known by anyone outside the Netherlands. One night in Paris changed everything.
On September 9 2018, de Jong made his full international debut against newly crowned world champions France. Given the circumstances, did he consider toning down the risks? “I’m brought in for a particular reason: Because of the way I play. It wouldn’t make sense that once I’m here, I change my game just because I’m afraid of making mistakes.”
De Jong did his own thing in Paris: Receiving the ball in motion, turning a circle around the first opponent, drawing in others, and then at the last second, when they seemed certain to dispossess him, passing into the space they had left free. Antoine Griezmann named him as the best player he’d ever faced, “I kept trying to put him under pressure, but it never worked.”
In one night, the Dutch team became unthinkable without de Jong. For years, the Netherlands had played horizontal football, specialising in slow square balls that opponents delightedly intercepted. De Jong made Dutch football vertical again.
My favourite football team is Barcelona from 2008 to 2012 under Pep Guardiola.
I'm in love with the style—get the ball back quickly then play possession with so many combinations—watching them you just feel like you want to go out on the field and join them."
—De Jong longs to play for Barcelona and Pep Guardiola; he is living the first
“He does things that an outside-left does, but from midfield: dribbling, cutting in front of his opponent at the right moment, keeping the ball at his feet long enough to create situations where you outnumber the opposition,” said Eljero Elia. “I’ve never seen anyone who plays like Frenkie.”
Though lauded as a ball-player, de Jong is an equally remarkable ball-winner. He anticipates where the ball will land, and tackles with light feet, relying entirely on timing, like the Artful Dodger picking a pocket.
Last season, de Jong was the playmaker of an absurdly young Ajax team that had reached the brink of the Champions League final when a 95th minute Tottenham goal left the players collapsed in tears on the Amsterdam field, still in perfect triangles.
Man City, PSG, and Barcelona competed to sign him. City’s coach Pep Guardiola, who believes that only dribbles can unlock tight modern defences, considered de Jong the footballer of the future.
It's important for Barcelona to bring in Frenkie de Jong.
He may not be from La Masia but Frenkie's play matches perfectly. He could very well become the next Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta."
—Marc Overmars believes de Jong is as La Masia as a La Masia graduate can get despite not hailing from the academy
De Jong used to lie awake at night wondering which club to join. He worried he wouldn’t get a game at Barcelona. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu recalls the first thing de Jong told him, “I want to enjoy my life with my girlfriend, playing.”
Bartomeu told de Jong, “If you’re looking for a coach, go for Pep Guardiola, but when he leaves City there’s no knowing who is going to be the next coach. If you’re after money, choose PSG, you’ll be an instant billionaire. But if you want to enjoy your life for the next 12, 14 years—come to Barcelona.”
In the end, de Jong decided he had to take the risk of joining Barca rather than spend the rest of his life wondering whether he could have made it there.
As a schoolboy, he had watched players such as Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets on TV. Now he is training with them. In a workplace full of world-class footballers who had seen it all, the mood surprised him.
I watched Lionel Messi since I was 12 in secondary school. He was already the best in the world, the Ballon d'Or winner.
And now I get to play and train with Leo. It's surreal."
—De Jong is earmarked as the future of Barcelona and is reportedly one of its four transfer 'untouchables' alongside Lionel Messi, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, and Ansu Fati
“They’re very relaxed,” de Jong remarks. “If they aren’t in the squad, they’ll come in with their kids and kick a ball with them in the room where we warm up. At Ajax I’d never seen kids in the changing room.” For home games, the players meet at Camp Nou just two and a half hours before kick-off.
Outsiders often mistake Messi for a quiet figure, but de Jong identifies him as the team leader. “When Messi says something, everyone listens. He gives talks and motivational speeches before the game.
He’s also really much better than the other players. I think a lot of people underestimate that. On the field, you try to always keep an eye on him, so that when you get the ball you’d know if he’s free.” De Jong says that in 50 years, he’ll still cherish having played with Messi.
Back at Ajax and Willem II, ruthless internal competition was the norm. “Everyone has something to prove. At Willem II, if you didn’t play you’d drop a division, and then you’d have less financial security. That’s a lot of stress,” explains de Jong. Barcelona, the pinnacle of football, proved more collegial.
Frenkie de Jong is most comfortable playing as a pivot but we have Sergio Busquets there so Frenkie has had to play further ahead as an anterior.
Frenkie is a complete footballer and from a similar playing philosophy at Ajax, so there's no problem.”
—Lionel Messi has taken upon himself to mentor Frenkie de Jong who has been been playing further forward than he preferred due to the team's requirement
Bought in as Sergio Busquets’ successor, the pivot of Barcelona immediately welcomed de Jong by making a restaurant reservation for him and his girlfriend without any trace of hostility. Other potential rivals were hospitable too. De Jong reflects, “They just know: ‘I’m very good.’ They have more internal peace.”
He has settled well in Barcelona. He enjoys going out in town, most people leave him alone or suffice with a cheery greeting, the fans delight in his resemblance to Cruyff: the long torso, upright head, perfect balance, acceleration within the acceleration, and the unexpected passes.
The only problem is that Busquets doesn’t yet need succeeding. So de Jong, who was born to play behind the ball, now often has to play in front of it, as one of Barcelona’s attacking midfielders.
“The spaces are smaller when it’s further forward,” he says. “I’m now watching lots of videos, trying to recognise situations, practising, practising, practising.”
I watch and learn from other midfielders whenever I can. How they move, how they understand the game, how they balance their defensive work.
There's always so much to learn."
—De Jong is performing admirably in his temporary role and considers the experience a part of his football education
Another thing de Jong needs to work on: “I don’t score much. Often I’ll dribble into a shooting position around the penalty area, but then I’ll pass. People say, ‘Why don’t you shoot?’ and I’ll think, ‘Next match I will’, but then I pass again. I’ve still yet to find that mental switch, it’s like I want to score but I don’t really want to score. I’ve always loved just football itself, playing the ball, putting someone else in the position to score.”
Before he goes, de Jong was asked about the Dutch anti-racist gesture he took part in during a match against Estonia last November. The weekend prior, spectators in the Dutch lower division had racially abused a black player. After the Netherlands’ opening goal against Estonia, the scorer Gini Wijnaldum and de Jong ran to the touchline together, and in front of the TV cameras de Jong placed his hand on Wijnaldum’s.
How had that come about? “There’d been a lot of talk in the group. Wijnaldum, especially, and Memphis Depay were the leaders. They came up with the idea: One black player and one white, with their arms together, to show, ‘We’re all one.’ Gini wanted to do it, and the white player became me.”
How did the group pick him? “They said, ‘Maybe Frenkie, because he’s generally liked by people.’”
We don't look at colour.
We play for the same team. We play for the same shirt. We play for the same goal. We are all one."
—Georginio Wijnaldum and de Jong made it known that the world belongs to all of us during Netherlands vs Estonia
You are, aren’t you? De Jong admits, “I’ve never had the feeling that there was any grumbling in the stands against me.”
Then, before the photographers even asked, he switches on the smile for them.