A year after Portuguese megastar Cristiano Ronaldo ended Juventus’ Champions League run, 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt did the same thing, his powerful header sending Ajax through at the expense of the Bianconeri.
Ronaldo, who joined the Old Lady just 90 days after breaking their hearts, was clearly impressed. Shortly after last season ended, his Portugal side faced de Ligt and the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League final, an occasion which presented the opportunity for a unique recruiting pitch.
When asked by a reporter what was said as the two men shook hands on the field at the Estádio do Dragão, the young defender didn’t hesitate.
De Ligt: “Ronaldo asked me to come to Juventus. I was a little shocked by that question, that’s why I laughed. I didn’t understand him at first.” [NOS] pic.twitter.com/2qqU0C6U9Z— Juvefc.com (@juvefcdotcom) June 9, 2019
“He asked me to come to Juventus,” de Ligt told NOS. “I was a little shocked by that question, that's why I laughed. I didn't understand him at first because just after the game you just feel bad that you’ve lost, that’s all you’re thinking about.”
Fast forward to today and he has done just that, Juventus unveiling the 19-year-old as their newest signing at Friday morning’s press conference. Earlier the Italian giants revealed that they have paid Ajax a €75 million transfer fee plus €10.5m in “additional costs,” the player signing a contract that ties him to the club until 2024.
He was quick to downplay the impact of that conversation with his new teammate, telling reporters that he'd “already decided on Juventus but it was a big compliment for someone like Cristiano to ask me.” Zooming out to view the bigger picture, it is quite possible that the arrival of de Ligt is an even more significant acquisition than signing Ronaldo.
While luring one of the greatest players in the history of the sport was no mean feat, there were extenuating circumstances that greatly narrowed CR7’s options last summer. As he looked to leave Real Madrid, which clubs could realistically afford to sign him?
Barcelona was a non-starter, as was (for very different reasons) Manchester United, while his ties to Old Trafford most likely ensured that any other Premier League club could also be ruled out. Paris Saint-Germain had committed to spending over €350 million on Neymar and Kylian Mbappé the previous summer, which basically left Juventus and Bayern Munich as the only plausible destinations.
Ronaldo’s eventual transfer was, of course, a major coup that had seismic ramifications for the wider football landscape and catapulted the Bianconeri into rarified media space. Suddenly, their social media audience, website traffic, and shirt sales were among Europe’s largest, the mere presence of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner enough to cause a huge spike in interest around the club
Yet is there any doubt that De Ligt had more options? Almost every single member of the continental elite had been linked with a move for the teenager, his performances in last season’s Champions League making him this summer’s most sought-after commodity.
Both Manchester clubs and Barcelona clearly identified him as a major target, but all were left empty-handed when the final decision was made. This fact simply cannot be understated: After enjoying a breakout campaign in 2018-19, Matthijs de Ligt could have chosen to play for almost any club he wanted — and he chose Juventus.
The significance of such a high-caliber player actively opting to join the Bianconeri over anyone else underscores just how much the Old Lady has grown in stature over the nine years during which Andrea Agnelli has been president. In the early part of his tenure, Antonio Di Natale refused a move to Juventus and opted to stay at Udinese, while Domenico Berardi did the same to continue his time at Sassuolo.
The only Dutch player the club could sign back then was Eljero Elia who, after managing a mere five appearances in 2011-12, told Algemeen Dagblad that he wanted to leave in order “to enjoy playing football again.”
Now, the finest player to emerge from the Ajax academy in years and arguably the most gifted defender of his generation actively campaigned to join Juventus. Convinced by Maurizio Sarri’s attacking philosophy and the talented squad the club has built, de Ligt has very clear ideas on what he wants and expects.
“I came here because Italy is one of the most traditional countries for defenders,” he told reporters at Friday morning’s press conference. “Juventus is a great step forward for me. In Holland there is a lot of building from the back and defending high up the pitch. Italy is more about zonal marking and defending together. I think that Juve can help me and I can help them.”
Injecting some youth into a backline that relies heavily on Giorgio Chiellini (who turns 35 next month) and Leonardo Bonucci (32) will be a huge boost, and it would be no surprise to see De Ligt supplant the latter in the pecking order as the new season progresses. As one season ticket holder told FloFC following the announcement, “Clubs don’t pay €80 million for a reserve player, and this club definitely doesn’t!”
That is undoubtedly true, but what they have done is spend that fee on not only acquiring one of Europe’s most in-demand stars, but they have sent a message that will be heard loud and clear by their rivals. It is a move that undeniably makes the Old Lady a member of the ultra-elite band of clubs who stand narrowly ahead of all the others, placing them alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona in terms of stature and the ability to sign any star who becomes available.
Matthijs de Ligt could’ve gone anywhere.
He chose Juventus.
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.