No matter how much is written about them, top athletes often continue to hold something inscrutable. They seldom show their backs unless their careers are over and they are interesting enough for a revealing (auto)biography – see Andre Agassi, who always turned out to have hated top tennis because of the extremely high pressure, and the Wim Kieft addicted to drugs and alcohol.
On Saturday, a once promising shadow from the past appeared in the Johan Cruijff Arena: Kasper Dolberg, the striker who scored two excellent goals for Denmark against Wales. Dolberg! He was still alive.
Denmark’s coach must be a trained psychotherapist, because he first drafted him into his starting team during this European Championship when it had to be played in the Arena. The Arena – the place where Dolberg’s career as a top talent began in 2016 and died out three years later. Ajax wanted to get rid of him and sold him to OGC Nice, where he became player of the year in the first season.
Dolberg had a lot to make up for in the Arena. But why did he fail as a youthful talent at Ajax, and why do you often see young or new players fail there? Think of the recent examples Noa Lang and the Romanian Razvan Marin, who later succeeded immediately elsewhere. It also threatens to go in that direction with the Brazilian David Neres.
Rarely, if ever, do you find out what has happened to them. Was it the pressure to perform that Agassi and Kieft were already complaining about? Were they not accepted by ‘the group’ for some reason? Or could their expensive football legs no longer bear the opulence? (I noticed that Dolberg left a 70,000 euro watch in the dressing room of OGC Nice that was stolen by a fellow player.)
Such an inscrutable player for me is Memphis Depay. A man of extremes: he either shines or he fails. He failed against the Czech Republic, but unfortunately not alone. From the recent TV documentary about him, I was left with the impression of a rather isolated man, who sometimes wanders too much in his own ego.
Among the women, the decline in the careers of athlete Dafne Schippers and tennis player Kiki Bertens intrigues me. Not so long ago, both belonged to the absolute world top. Schippers won Olympic silver and became world champion twice, Bertens reached fourth place in the world ranking, which a Dutch player had never achieved before. Bertens has announced that he will stop soon, Schippers seems to be on his way to the same decision. Why did things go wrong for them sooner than we expected? Much has also been written about them, but a satisfactory answer remains guesswork.
The similarity between them: Both broke with their coach at a pivotal point in their careers. Schippers, who then received heavier training, had some success, but it quickly became less, Bertens never reached her old level again. In a recent interview in AD says Schippers: „It is not due to my commitment, my training, the will, the talent. It is unfortunately a physical thing.” Her back would have ended up in a preliminary stage of hernia.
Or is there more to it? A mental breakdown perhaps? Waiting for the biography.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 28, 2021