JAN VERTONGHEN IS a confident and forthright man.
The Ajax captain opted this week to swerve the modern convention of castigating Luis Suarez, a former teammate, and expressed a wish to play for Manchester United, a team he lines up against at the Amsterdam Arena this evening.
Ajax certainly know how to choose their leaders – young, talented and headstrong.
The 24-year-old central defender inherited the captain’s armband from goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenberg, now with Roma, who filled the role for six months after the January 2011 departure of Suarez.
But while the line-up to condemn the Uruguayan striker for his non-handshake with Patrice Evra now resembles a Harcourt Street queue on the night of the All-Ireland Hurling final, Vertonghen is not for joining.
“I was friends with Luis and Maarten when they were at Ajax,” he told TheScore this week, “and we played together for many years. They are both amazing players and remain good friends.”
“The whole controversy has been blown out of proportion. Luis, if you knew him, is a really amazing person. He is not a racist, not at all. At Ajax he played for many years with players of all nationalities and he never had a problem with any of them.”
The Dutch side find themselves outside the domestic Champions League places and beset by internal, board-room strife as Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal – two Ajax legends – bicker over the future of the club. Vertonghen’s return from to starting line-up after a brief absence coincided with his side’s first win of 2012 (a 2-0 win over NAC Breda) and a renewal of a solid partnership with Toby Alderweireld.
140 appearances have followed since a first-team debut in 2006 and the Belgian already has 35 international caps, mostly in centre-midfield. Vertonghen’s preference is for defence but he is content with his national team position. He also has an eye for goal and a comfort with leadership. His name was never going to stay out of the European scouting reports for long.
“I would very much like to play in England in the future. The Premier League is the only competition in the world that I watch every week. I regularly speak to some of my Belgium teammates in England – Simon Mignolet, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele – and they keep me updated on all the news.
Manchester United’s Paul Scholes warms up before training last night. Picture: Adam Davy/EMPICS Sport
“I do not have a favourite team but I regularly follow the top sides – the two from Manchester and the London teams.”
United welcome Chris Smalling back to their squad for the Europa Cup fixture this evening but are still without Phil Jones and long-term injury victim Nemanja Vidic. With Rio Ferdinand straining sinews to prolong a career at Old Trafford and Vertonghen out of contract in just over a year, there is scope for the Belgian to join the ranks.
He said, “United have so many dangerous and talented players, like Rooney, Ferdinand and Scholes. Sometimes I look at the stats for those two players and I can’t believe my eyes.
“I have already played against Real Madrid this season but, for me, it will be amazing to play against them. I hope that one day I can play for Manchester United or Tottenham.”
Having made no secret of his desire to join the growing ranks of Belgians in the Premier League, Vertonghen’s advice to another player linked with United in January, Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen, is to be patient.
“Christian is a big player for us and has already proved his worth even though he is still only 20. I think Ajax should try everything in their power to hold onto him for next season. There are a couple of players that will leave the club in the summer and because Christian is still young it will benefit him to stay here and take on more responsibility.”
He is also plotting the Europa demise of United and feels Ajax must play their own game, of attacking and creating chances, at 100% to carry it off.