South African is the catalyst for Ajax but will now play with a heavy heart, writes Ian Hawkey.
Ajax’s Serero expects emotional victory over AC Milan in Uefa Champions League
Thulani Serero was already in bed last Thursday when he received a text message from a friend at home.
“It hit me hard,” Serero said.
He turned on his television to see news schedules cleared, announcing the passing of his most famous compatriot. Nelson Mandela had shaped his life, Serero said the following day.
“He is the one who made things possible for black South Africans like me,” he said. “I would not be where I am without him.”
Serero, 23, was barely more than an infant when Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, bringing to an end the era of racial discrimination, the systematic privation of opportunity to the majority of its citizens.
He would be too young to remember vividly the long, snaking queues of voters in his native Soweto as they exercised their long-forbidden right to chose their government, though his upbringing would bring regular reminders that his generation of Sowetans, while far from spoiled, have been able to set their horizons far higher and wider than his parents or grandparents dared dream.
On Wednesday night, Serero will set his ambitions very high, as he steps onto one of the most fabled football theatres, the Giuseppe Meazza stadium in San Siro. He will carry a substantial share of Ajax’s hope of winning in order to progress in the Champions League, at the expense of their out-of-form hosts, AC Milan.
Serero has quickly come to enjoy these big occasions and rising to them. A fortnight ago, he struck the first of Ajax’s two goals in defeating Barcelona, and in the opening match of the group, he came off the bench to win a penalty at Camp Nou.
All of which confirms that a special talent has the temperament to thrive in elite company. The Ajax coach, Frank De Boer, set Serero the challenge to prove that at the outset of the season when he gathered together the squad’s midfield players. The club had just said goodbye to their influential playmaker, Christian Eriksen, who was sold to Tottenham Hotspur, and a gap needed filling.
“He said we all have to step up now that Christian has gone,” Serero said. “Christian had become one of the best in the world in his position, so it is impossible to just replace a player like that, but we all have to take responsibility.”
Serero’s capacity was unproven, since his Ajax career had been a stop-start affair because of injury. He signed a four-year contract two years ago, after the Dutch club had been monitoring him since he was about 14.
They have a streamlined system for sourcing young southern African players, thanks to the Ajax Cape Town club, formed in the mid-1990s.
From Ajax Cape Town, the mother club regularly invite players for trial. A small proportion make it to full contract, a handful to sustained success.
The striker Benni McCarthy came to Ajax from Cape Town and helped persuade Ajax that setting up a satellite feeder system there might prove wise. McCarthy’s prolific scoring as a teenager in the Dutch League launched him on a path that would include a Champions League triumph with Porto and a stint in the Premier League, where he once finished as its second-best marksman while with Blackburn Rovers.
The South African connection also brought Steven Pienaar, later of Borussia Dortmund and Spurs and now in his second spell at Everton, to Ajax. Serero has something of Pienaar’s inventiveness from attacking midfield, though he still talks of adapting and adjusting.
“I am learning a lot about European football,” he said. “There are big differences between the football in South Africa and the type of game we play here. Here you are expected to do more work defensively. As a No 10 in South Africa, you sort of expect other players to play around you.”
He was pleased to hear De Boer recently laud him as “the motor of the team”, and was feted for his match-winning performance against Barcelona. He will know that, after an emotional few days for his countrymen, many will tune into to Milan-Ajax tonight looking for a fillip from an emerging sporting hero.
Barcelona seek first-place finish
The key to Barcelona beating Celtic in Group C will be quick circulation of the ball in attack, the Spanish club’s coach, Tata Martino, said Tuesday.
The Catalan side need a point to finish at the top of Group H after they lost at Ajax in their last match and the pressure is on after they followed that up with defeat by Athletic Bilbao in La Liga.
AC Milan are second on eight points and the Italians play Ajax, who are point further back.
“It is very important for us to finish first and I don’t think any games are easy,” Martino said. “Every match has consequences and we need now to be precise and quick on the ball going forward. I imagine most of the game will be squeezed into 30 or 40 metres of the pitch.”