Johan Kappelhof will never forget the first time he saw the Amsterdam Arena. He was only a child, there to watch an Ajax game with his dad.
“I could tell you everything about that day,” he said, reeling off the starting XI from that day which included Jari Litmanen and Edwin van der Sar.
Kappelhof had grown up in the shadow of the stadium, and it was that day that a seed was planted. His dream was to one day play on that pitch for Ajax and that drifted towards reality when he was scouted and signed into the club’s academy at 8-years-old.
He would spend 13 years at Ajax, graduating through the youth ranks and into the club’s reserve team, Jong Ajax. Along the way, he would be coached by Frank de Boer, one of the players that inspired his dream.
“I learned a lot from him,” Kappelhof said. “He was my coach in the under 18s and under 19s, and that was when I learned the most in my academy years, and I’m really thankful for that. He helped me to learn the precision to be a professional player; that the details matter. [He taught me] about the aggression you need as a defender and that every pass matters, the way you play it, you have to give a message with your pass.
“He always pushed me to be the best in the training sessions. He showed me that to be a professional, you can’t be immature, you have to be sure that you’re giving it all and showing your quality.”
Ajax is considered one of the best academies in world football. The list of players that have walked through its hallowed halls is long, with each student drawing their own wisdom from time spent there.
“I think responsibility,” Kappelhof said when asked what he learned at Ajax. “Like, for example, you would have a big bag with all your clothes when you were coming into the club, and the parents were not allowed to carry your bags for you. You had to carry them yourselves. You had to take responsibility for our own things.”
Instilling accountability into Kappelhof served him well when he embarked on his professional career. After finding first-team opportunities limited at Ajax he moved north to join FC Groningen.
“At that time at Ajax I had [Gregory] van der Wiel in front of me, I had Toby Alderweireld in front of me, Jan Vertonghen in front of me,” Kappelhof said. “It was difficult to get a chance in the first team, so that’s why I moved to Groningen.”
At the time Kappelhof was young and inexperienced, much like teammate Virgil van Dijk.
“When I came to the team it was also Virgil’s first year as a professional,” Kappelhof said. “In the beginning, there were a few older guys who were playing, but you could see he was better. I think in his mind he didn’t know he was that good.
“We still talk about that time [in Groningen]. We were living on our own in a big city with a lot of things to do outside of football. He got more mature during his time there. We had a good assistant coach who was always working with him. We were both in the same situation, both young and hungry, waiting for our chances. After a while, we got to play with each other, and we did well.”
The two struck up a friendship, and their careers since Groningen serve as a reminder that a footballer’s career can be unpredictable. “He ended up in Liverpool winning the Champions League, and I am here in Chicago,” he said.
The 28-year-old is settled in Illinois — you can hear it in his voice. January saw him sign a new three-year contract with the club.
He was initially hesitant about moving leaving Groningen to join MLS, but after meeting head coach Veljko Paunović and GM Nelson Rodriguez he was convinced of the project. That word ‘project’ seems apt for Chicago. While Kappelhof performed well during his first three years in Chicago (earning an MLS All-Star selection in 2017), the team has at times struggled.
Just as he saw potential in Van Dijk, he now sees it in his current employers.
“This year we have to do better because we have quality in the team,” he said. “We have to reach the playoffs first then we have to look further. I’m 28-years-old, my ambition is to win MLS Cup. I want to be the best defender in the league. I think I have the ability to be the best, so I have to work hard for it and challenge myself to be the best. I believe we have the quality now it is time to show it.”
Kappelhof is clear about his ambitions, just as De Boer taught him to be. He balances that determination, however, with an almost childlike appreciation for the position he is in.
“When you’re on the field you’re like a fish in the water, you know?” He said. “I started playing football when I was four or five years old, and it just makes you happy. It’s your job, and you’re getting paid to do what you love. The banter in the team and making jokes with each other; I think it’s the best feeling ever. I think whenever I retire I’ll miss the locker-room the most.”
That’s because deep down, through the highs and lows of his journey, Johan Kappelhof is still that wide-eyed little boy staring adoringly at the Amsterdam Arena, dreaming about football.