Frenkie de Jong is one of the finest midfielders in world football.
In an exclusive interview with Guillem Balague for BBC Radio 5 Live’s European Football Podcast, the 23-year-old Barcelona and Netherlands man talks about how sport can lead the fight against racism, returning to football after the coronavirus, learning from Lionel Messi and the musical inspiration behind his name.
‘It does not matter what colour you are, everyone is the same’
The tweet at the top of Frenkie de Jong’s Twitter account is a poignant one.
He is pictured alongside international team-mate and Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, a black player, with them holding their arms out, along with the hashtag #stopracism.
The picture was taken in November, but De Jong posted it again this week – amid global protests following the death of an unarmed black American man, George Floyd, who died after a white police officer had his knee on the back of his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis.
“It makes you feel really sad that there are still things like this,” said De Jong. “I can’t imagine people thinking this way, it’s really strange.
“In our dressing room we have players from South America, Holland, Spain, everywhere in the world and we’re coming together – the colour of your skin and where you’re from doesn’t matter.
“Sport can play a big role [in the fight against racism] as you can reach many people.”
Describing his tweet, De Jong added: “In the week of the game against Estonia there was an incident in Holland when people were shouting [against a black player].
“We decided it would be good to make a statement that everyone’s the same. Georginio Wijnaldum and the group decided we would go up with the arms to send a message.”
‘Life is not how it used to be’
De Jong and his Barcelona team-mates returned to training in May with La Liga set to resume on 11 June following an absence of more than three months because of the coronavirus pandemic, with Spain one of the countries worst affected.
“I didn’t have the virus but life isn’t how it used to be,” said De Jong. “I don’t think it’s changed me as a person. I’ve spent a lot of time with my girlfriend, we were in Holland and we could go out – the situation was a bit more comfortable than in Spain.
“When we were training in separate groups we had to wait before the others left, I couldn’t say ‘hi’ to them, that was really strange.
“Training is intense and maybe we’re better than when we stopped. I’m feeling there is something special coming.”
‘If you want to enjoy your life you want to play in Barcelona’
De Jong, who said the Frenkie part of his name came because his parents liked 1980s band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, grew up in a small Dutch village and joined Willem II after a trial period.
But it was not long before he went to Ajax, winning the Eredvisie and reaching the Champions League semi-finals last season before he joined Barcelona in a £65m move.
“It was my dream to play for Barcelona,” said De Jong, who had watched their games while on holidays in Spain. “They were my favourite club outside of the Netherlands. When they came and showed they were really interested they made the choice easier.”
De Jong, who has played 15 times for the Dutch national team, was wanted by other clubs, including Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Paris St-Germain and Juventus, before a visit from Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu helped seal the move to Spain.
“At the beginning I didn’t have the feeling Barcelona really wanted me. But they said you have a good chance of being a starter and it was really easy for me.
“He [Bartomeu] talked about the other clubs and Guardiola and said when he was at Barcelona he was amazing. He said Guardiola was the greatest manager but told me ‘if you want to enjoy your life you want to play in Barcelona’.
“Sometimes when I’m driving to the training ground you see the weather and there are these moments when you think ‘I always wanted this as a kid, it’s a dream’ – I’m really happy.”
Learning from Lionel
It could be a successful first season in Spain as Barcelona are top of La Liga and in the Champions League last 16.
However, not everything has gone smoothly as coach Ernesto Valverde was sacked in January, despite them being top.
De Jong says he has had to tweak his game, but is learning from the best.
“In Ajax and the Dutch squad I’ve had a different role but we’re playing with a double six [two defensive midfielders],” he added.
“I have to adapt and it’s going OK, but I can improve. I’m at my best when I’m not the most defensive but also not the most attacking [midfielder].
“If Lionel Messi is talking and giving you advice you take it as he is by far the best player in the world. If he gives advice, you listen. Sometimes he says you have to be deeper or to the side, small things but it makes the difference.”