AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 14:  Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax celebrates scoring his teams second goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League third round qualifying match between Ajax and Royal Standard de Liege at Johan Cruyff Arena on August 14, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 14: Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax celebrates scoring his teams second goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League third round qualifying match between Ajax and Royal Standard de Liege at Johan Cruyff Arena on August 14, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Manchester United's French striker Anthony Martial warms up for the English Premier League football match between Fulham and Manchester United at Craven Cottage in London on January 20, 2021. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / POOL / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Paris Saint-Germain's French striker Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the first leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 football match between Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at Old Trafford in Manchester, north-west England on February 12, 2019. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Paolo ROSSI. Italy, born 23rd September 1956. In 1982 the World Cup was hosted by Spain. The final was played on 11th July in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid. Attendance: 90,000. Result Italy 3 -- 1 West Germany. Rossi scores Italy's first goal in the 57th minute. Photographed on his vineyard in Tuscany, 31/08/09. EXCLUSIVE TEXT ACCOMPANIES / AVAILABLE FOR THIS PORTRAIT. © Michael Donald / eyevine Contact eyevine for more information about using this image: T: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 E: info@eyevine.com http:///www.eyevine.com
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PHOTO: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
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Story highlights

Matthijs de Ligt is Ajax's 19-year-old captain

Already the youngest player to appear in a European final

(CNN) —  

There are few football clubs like Ajax. There are even fewer, perhaps, with as clear a pathway between academy and greatness.

Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids – by no means an exhaustive list, but a snapshot of a regal lineage.

Matthijs de Ligt is the latest – not so much a cab off the rank as a Rolls Royce. He might just be the ultimate product of his environment.

A 19-year-old captain of the 33-time Eredivisie champions; an Ajax boy from the age of nine; a starter against Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League Final – the youngest player ever to feature in a European decider.

In leading Ajax to the Champions League semifinals – scoring the decisive goal in the quarterfinal against Juventus – he has done so as the second youngest skipper in the competition’s history. Only Ruben Neves – then of Porto – was younger.

Fittingly, when De Ligt made his Champions League bow in a 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich earlier this season, he surpassed Rafael van der Vaart – another graduate of Jong Ajax’s famed conveyor belt – as the competition’s second-youngest captain.

To look at this as a coincidence is to ignore generations of tradition, generations of careful nurturing. Quite simply, De Ligt tells CNN: “The most important thing is that they want to develop you.”

READ: Ajax stun Juventus

READ: How Ajax and Johan Cruyff ‘thought outside the box’

Ajax's captain at 19 years old, Matthijs de Ligt became the youngest player to start a European final in 2017.
PHOTO: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Ajax's captain at 19 years old, Matthijs de Ligt became the youngest player to start a European final in 2017.

Ajax exists almost without parallel. And as De Ligt speaks, he does so with the self-assured confidence of a young man raised and developed in the club’s distinct manner. Immensely popular among Amsterdam’s adoring football public, he is one of their own in a way that few beyond the city could begin to understand.

“It’s really nice,” he says, of the relationship with the club’s supporters. “I was a fan before when I was younger, so I watched a lot of games and I was always singing in the crowd and shouting when the referee made a mistake or something, you know?

“And now to play in the arena, to be captain of this team is something else, a dream.”

It is, of course, an arena adorned with Cruyff’s name – the icon whose influence is etched all over the club. Cruyff won the European Cup with Ajax three times in succession in 1971, ‘72 and ‘73, before collecting a wide array of titles with Barcelona and Feyenoord, and the Dutchman is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.

“Everybody knows Johan Cruyff,” De Ligt says. “And everybody knows the impact he had on the football world and on Amsterdam.

“The city breathes football, and I think that’s what you see in those games for us. A lot of tension, a lot of shouting and noise. It’s really incredible.”

02:53 - Source: CNN
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Paolo ROSSI. Italy, born 23rd September 1956. In 1982 the World Cup was hosted by Spain. The final was played on 11th July in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid. Attendance: 90,000. Result Italy 3 -- 1 West Germany. Rossi scores Italy's first goal in the 57th minute. Photographed on his vineyard in Tuscany, 31/08/09. EXCLUSIVE TEXT ACCOMPANIES / AVAILABLE FOR THIS PORTRAIT. © Michael Donald / eyevine Contact eyevine for more information about using this image: T: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 E: info@eyevine.com http:///www.eyevine.com
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PHOTO: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan (in yellow) talks to Istanbul Basaksehir's staff members during the UEFA Champions League group H football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Istanbul Basaksehir FK at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, on December 8, 2020. - Paris Saint-Germain's decisive Champions League game with Istanbul Basaksehir was suspended today in the first half as the players walked off amid allegations of racism by one of the match officials. The row erupted after Basaksehir assistant coach Pierre Webo, the former Cameroon international, was shown a red card during a fierce row on the touchline with staff from the Turkish club appearing to accuse the Romanian fourth official of using a racist term. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
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