Justin Kluivert's name has always proceeded him.
Whether it was in his first kickarounds as a boy, where his father's exploits were known to many, or his initial forays into the professional game at Ajax - where Patrick even lifted the European Cup - the young winger has had to deal with additional expectations and attention all his life.
Now forging his own path in Italy - where, after seven goals already this season, he seems to be settling in nicely - the Dutchman reflects on his career to date, and all the factors that motivate him to be the very best he can be...
What are your first memories of playing football? Or football in general?
“I think the first memory I really have was playing for ASV De Dijk, I played with my cousins and my brothers in that team. I think that’s the first thing I really remember. But, yeah, of course I remember kicking around with my brothers too. I always liked to have a ball and we’d play a lot.”
When you started playing more seriously, were there players you really looked up to?
“Of course, my father was one I looked up to when I was small – and I still do. He pushes me to keep improving. But I also admired other players, like [Cristiano] Ronaldo for example. He’s a player you could look up to. And [Lionel] Messi also, for sure.”
When you were starting out, did you always play organised football? Or were you also, you know, outside in the park with friends?
“Definitely, I played a lot with teams but we would always go to the park too. Outside, because where we lived, our fence at the back of our house was like, it backed on to the playground. So we would hop over and we always played outside, we played football and everything else with the other guys from the neighbourhood. So I think that makes you tougher, it makes you harder - because it makes you learn different things.”
Were you always aware that your dad was a big deal in football? Or did it take a while for that to become clear?
“Yeah, it took a little while for that to become clear, for sure. And at the time, even once I did know it, it was still something really strange for me - because for me, it was only my dad, you know? I never saw him play – I mean, when he was at his very best - and so there were all these people who really admired him for what he had achieved. And I admired him, and do admire him, as well - but I saw him in a different way.”
Do you think people reacted to you differently, because of who your father was?
“Yeah, I’d agree with that. I think so. Because maybe when you play as a little child, when you're 10 years old, and a lot of people may have things to say - they think you are getting picked because of who your father is, or whatever. But that’s something that always motivated me, you know. That made me who I am today, it made me a better player, because it meant I was motivated every day to show them that nothing was because of the name or anything else.”
That’s interesting, because some wouldn’t take it that way – to turn it into a positive.
“It was always a motivation to me.”
Did you always think you would be a professional footballer? Was there any doubt in your mind?
“Yes, I always said, ‘Yeah, I'm gonna be a professional footballer.’ I dreamed about it a lot.
“At a certain age, you feel that you can become a great player. But yeah, when you're a little bit younger, you are with Ajax but the trainers might say something like, ‘In this team, maybe there will be two or three players that will make it.’ And then you look around the dressing room and you think, ‘Is that me or not? Am I one of the three best here?’ But that motivates you also to work harder every day. To be better than everybody else.”
What was it like coming through the academy at Ajax? It’s widely regarded as one of the best systems in Europe.
“I think so – I think it's the best, especially because you see how they play at the first-team level now. With the youth teams everything is arranged very good. When it comes to your food, your schooling, everything is perfect. And then the level of football is I think, the best in Holland. And in all of Europe too, I think.”
What was an average day there like for you? Say, for example, when you were 15 years old.
“So, it would usually start with school at 7:30 – they would pick you up to take you to school with the bus. There was a special bus just for the young players that would bring you to school, and to the club, and you would have to study there too. Then after school you would have some lunch, and then you would have training, and then after training you would have dinner at the club. Then the bus would bring you home again. You would get home at 20:30, maybe. Every day basically followed that routine. Everything was thought of, it was very disciplined.”
It sounds quite intense – but it must have meant you formed some strong bonds with teammates.
“Yes, I think everybody at that stage had a good bond with all the other guys in the team. With lots of them we are all still in contact. There are guys in the Ajax team now, and there is Matheus Pereira at Juventus who I am friends with – I can name a lot more too.”
Is it a period you look back on with a lot of fondness?
“I think it is funny and nice to look back on it. Like, you know, to think about where we all started and then where we are all now.”
What was it like for you, when you broke into the first team? Did it all happen very quickly?
“Yeah, yeah. And it was like a dream come true. Like, to play at the Amsterdam ArenA was my dream as a little boy, I only thought about doing that. And I accomplished that. And that was the main goal I had. And I'm still very happy that I managed to accomplish that. That is what you dream of and that is what you have worked so hard to be in a position to do. I think it was 10 years of hard work, because I was just seven when I started there. And then, when I was 17, I made my debut.”
What was the learning curve like? Was it a big jump from junior football to senior football?
“I definitely learned it's very different than junior football! It's… I cannot really explain it. But when you come to the first team the football is just different, it’s a different type of game. Everybody's just… good, you know? Everybody's smart. Everybody has a drive. It’s very different. It’s all very different and so you cannot really compare things.
"It’s like, you have it easier at the youth level. But then you move up and initially you are like, ‘What is happening?!’ Everything is quicker, everyone is stronger. You learn quickly though, and it is awesome.”
What memories stand out for you during your time in the first team? The Europa League run? The goals you scored?
“Of everything, it might still be my debut. But I definitely remember all the goals I scored for the club, especially the good ones. And it was great to be part of the team that reached the Europa League final.”
Okay, but then we come to the summer of 2018. When you left Ajax, how did you reach that decision? Did you decide the time had come to leave and assessed your options from there, or did you consider all your options and then decide you wanted to move on?
“I think it was all… at the beginning, I didn't really think of going or anything. But soon there came some very interesting offers and opportunities that I had to talk about, you know, with my family and everybody else. And it definitely wasn’t the easiest decision. Because I had played all my life with Ajax, you know, and so this was going to be a big step for me if I took it. But ultimately I believed I could do it. I felt I could make that step. So that’s how we came to the choice, and everyone was 100% behind it.”
So then you had a few options – what was it about Roma that you zeroed in on?
“Partly it was how the club is, you know - I saw them the year before [reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League]. And the thing is, it's a very big club. It's a wonderful club. That was a big opportunity for me. And then you think about how the city is also beautiful, how it is great to live in a place like this. But it’s also a place I could progress as a player, so it was a win-win situation.”
When you came to Italy, did you find that, like what you were saying about going from junior football to senior football, going from the Dutch league to Serie A was another jump?
“Yeah, it switches again, you know - but then that's what you want. Things are more physical here, and the games are more tactical too. But you want to accomplish those things, you want to adapt and develop. That’s why I also made the step up, to present myself on a higher level. I think that's what I'm doing now - and I want to do much more.”
Looking back on your first season here, how do you assess it?
“I learned a lot you know – as we said before everything changes from youth to senior football, and then everything changed again coming to Serie A. So I had to adapt a lot and it didn't go so well – but that was true for the team as well. So I think there was not really a lot of space to maybe try some things out with different players, you know, and that’s part of the stuff you learn. But you are still young, and you have to go through some steps and some setbacks to reach your end goal. That’s what I think."
Is it fair to say you learned a lot on the pitch – but a lot off it, too? Living away from home for the first time…
Was it always the plan, that you would live alone? Because that’s a big decision too.
“Yeah, that was always the idea. But it’s fine, my family and my friends visit regularly so it’s been good.”
What about learning Italian? I know you have started to do a few post-match interviews in Italian…
“Yeah, it’s difficult but I’m trying to learn. Last year it was more essential to know some Italian, but I still want to improve so I can do more. It is easier to understand but I still want to be better at talking.”
This season saw a new coach, a fresh start – almost a new chapter for everyone. How was it initially with the coach? What were your impressions of him?
“The impressions were good. When he came in it was clear he knew what his goal was, you know? So you get a good feeling about what it means for the team – from the way he talks and the way he explains things. He likes to work a lot with the ball in training and as players we always like that. So I think together we can definitely achieve something good.”
From the start of the season you were heavily involved in almost every game. How important was that for you?
“I think it was very important. Looking back on last year and then focusing on this season, you know, I thought to myself, ‘Okay, this year has to be your year.’ I cannot sit on the bench the whole season again, because that is not the player I want to be.
"I think setbacks also make me stronger too. If you react negatively to a negative moment or a negative comment… if you don’t try to do something about it maybe it will stay the same. But if you change it, if you think, ‘What can I do to address it?’ then there is a bigger chance you will make that change. So that’s always what I try to do.”
What do you think about the Euros being postponed by a year, then? Is that more motivation for you – to cement your place for that?
“For sure. Obviously I hoped it would be this year, and I was hoping and working hard to force myself into the plans for that. I was working hard and trying to play well – but not just for the Euros, but for the club, for Rome and for myself. Now it is next season, so it’s something I can prepare for more.
“I’ll be a year older, a year wiser, so maybe it could help me. It will definitely be in my mind – I want to make sure my performances for Roma help me secure a starting spot for Holland too. I will give 100% for that.”
Before the league stopped, you really seemed to have found your stride. You were scoring goals on a consistent basis – and important goals too, like the one against Gent.
“Yes, for sure – that’s true. I was doing well, contributing some big goals and that’s what I want to do for the team. When I got here, I said I wanted to be a regular goalscorer for the team. I knew that there would be a learning curve, I knew I would have obstacles and it would be tough, but that’s what I was always focused on. I had a bad injury too, but I came back from that stronger and I was feeling confident.
“One thing feeds the other – if you feel confident, you get more out of yourself, and as you get more out of yourself you feel more confident. I was scoring big goals, like the one against Gent, but then the league had to stop – understandably so. But I am hungry and focused and I’ll be ready when we restart.”
So motivation isn’t a problem as you train alone? You just focus on that first game back?
“I am always motivated. I have big goals, you know? So it’s not hard to be motivated. I am training hard even in the quarantine and focused not just on staying fit, but getting even better. That’s my target.”
Does it seem strange to you, that the government allowed individual athletes to return to training from May 4 – but footballers have to wait until May 18?
“It definitely seems a bit odd – of course we all want to be able to start as soon as possible. It seems like it would be the same really – we are at the same risk when we are running alone in the park, with other people around us, than we would be at Trigoria with our teammates. Maybe more so. But it is not up to us. We want to get back to playing as soon as possible, but others have to make that decision – it is not in our hands. We wait for them, and we will be ready to go.”
Another change you made at the start of this season – your squad number. What was behind the switch to 99?
“When I came here I made the choice to play with the number of my friend [Abdelhak Nouri] on the back, because I still think about him every day. And I said to myself – even if I did not share it publicly at the time – that I would play with the No. 34 for one year. I wanted to do it for him, to represent him and show for him.
“So then this summer it came the moment to change. I actually wanted No. 11 – but Aleksandar Kolarov has it. I asked him for it 100 times, but it’s not possible.”
You even asked him?! That's quite brave…
“Yeah, yeah. But he wasn’t having it. I had some other numbers in my head too – but those were gone as well. So then I thought, okay, I will go with 99 on my back then. I was born in 1999, so that’s why I went for it.”
Did it feel like a bit of a restart too? New number, new me…
“Yeah, a little bit that too.”
Were you on the pitch at the time of Appie Nouri’s accident? How do you possibly process something like that?
“It’s really difficult, you know. Because it happens in a moment, and then it's very strange how it all goes. You initially think about the best that can happen – you hope for the best, but then eventually it turns out that the worst has happened. And that is very sad for the family, and for the players that have been there on the pitch with him. It's something you don't forget, because it's not something that happens in football. That never happens, actually. So it becomes something that you never forget.”
Do you think it changed your perspective, or how you view your career?
“I think so, in certain ways. If you think back on it, when you do something in the present you do think that, okay, you should enjoy every moment that you can because you never know how it how it can go in life. So that's one thing that I got out of it for sure.”
Is it easy to switch off from the pressure, though? How do you take your mind off it?
“I really like to be at home, I like to watch movies or to play PlayStation. To be with my family, I always enjoy that. I think that's a great way to relax for me. Just doing nothing is pretty good. Watch movies, watch movies and relax with my family.
“During the quarantine I have my cousins and some family here with me, so that’s good at least.”
What is the dynamic like with your brothers? Are you all very close?
“We all get along very good. I have two brothers from the same parents - and then one little half-brother through my mother, and another little half-brother through my dad. So it’s a bit complicated, but we get on really well. I love them all and it’s really nice when we spend time together.”
How would you say you fit in the group? Are you the joker? Are you the serious one?
“I would say I’m probably the more serious one!”
Away from football, I hear you also have plans to launch a YouTube channel soon. What’s going to be there?
“Yes, I’ve been focused on that project for a little bit – especially with the lockdown giving me some more time. Before the lockdown I’ve been filming a lot of videos and collecting different football stories, lots of different things. Videos about what I’ve been through, what I’m going through now, where I’ve come from and what I’m looking to achieve.
“It’s something I want to share with people, to show them a bit of my life outside football but also to explain what it is like inside the game. We can take them behind-the-scenes a little bit and offer a different side to a footballer’s life.
"I will keep it updated – hopefully it will motivate some younger kids who are looking to make it, and show them a bit of what it takes.”
Your younger half-brother, Shane, might fall under that category. He’s trying to make it in the game like you have done - do you give a lot of advice to him?
“Yes, of course. He’s young but he now has his own phone and everything, so he texts me a lot. And I help him as much as I can, because he’s got a dad who did a lot in football and now he has an older brother who is doing it, who he can relate to. So he can ask me a lot of questions and I can understand what he is going through.”
And when you have questions, when you need career advice, is it still your dad that you go to mainly?
“Yeah, for sure that is who I like to go to. Because he has been where I've got to now. So yeah, he’s always helpful for me.”
Obviously he has been very helpful to you, as a source of advice and also motivation. But, on some level, do you ever get annoyed that everyone – especially in interviews like this – want to relate everything you do back to your father? That everything about you is said in comparison to him?
“No, no, I don't really worry about things like that. Especially not that. Because I think that what we have is something really nice, you know, and it’s great for me that I have somebody who has already been there. Someone that can show me how to handle things, give me good advice and everything else.
“People have been comparing me my whole life. But, as I said, that always just motivated me – to keep getting better, to become as good as he was and, you know, maybe one day actually be even better.”
Check out earlier entries in our Big Interview series:
AS Roma x Amadou Diawara
AS Roma x Jordan Veretout
AS Roma x Elisa Bartoli
AS Roma x Betty Bavagnoli
AS Roma x Chris Smalling
AS Roma x Edin Dzeko
AS Roma x Gianluca Mancini
AS Roma x Aleksandar Kolarov
AS Roma x Nicolo Zaniolo
AS Roma x Jim Pallotta
AS Roma x Cengiz Under
AS Roma x Paulo Fonseca
AS Roma x Leonardo Spinazzola