The criminally underrated Faas Wilkes

Faas Wilkes (1923-2006) was Johan Cruyff’s favourite footballer. And yet outside the Netherlands – and Valencia – few people have ever heard of him.

The football encyclopaedia on my desk describes him, in its best Wolstenholmian prose, as “tall, lean, splendidly gifted inside-forward with dazzling close control and a strong shot”. He was, if the evidence of this clip was anything to go by, a mean dribbler although he does look a bit gormless facing the camera.Like Cruyff in the early 1970s, Wilkes was not content to be the best in Dutch club football. He was one of the first Dutch players to become an idol overseas, dazzling for Valencia from 1953 to 1956 even though he was already 30 when he joined them. His path to the top has since been well trodden by the likes of Cruyff, Neeskens, Kluivert and Sneijder.

Wilkes in action for Valencia 

Wilkes paid a price for his determination: at that time, the KNVB refused to select players for the national team who played professionally abroad. If it hadn’t been for that policy, he would surely have won far more than 38 caps. He scored 35 goals in those games, including four on his debut against Luxembourg and was the all-time top scorer for Holland until Dennis Bergkamp surpassed him in 1998. Wilkes, his international team-mate and inside forward Kees Rijvers, and striker Bertus de Harder who looks uncannily like Arjen Robben’s granddad all left Holland to progress. Rijvers and Harder went to France, a career move that is almost unimaginable today. Rijvers later won the UEFA Cup as PSV coach in 1978.Wilkes’ decision to play overseas didn’t stop him becoming a legend in his home city Rotterdam. The ultimate accolade for a successful sportsman from the home of Feyenoord (and Xerxes, the club he played for) is to be given the Faas Wilkes award.Wilkes’ Wikipedia page suggests that he, along with his peers Kick Smit and Abe Lenstra, inspired the Dutch cartoon character Kick Wilstra, a “wonder centre forward” as he is billed on his official site. With Lenstra and Rijvers, Wilkes formed the Golden Inside Trio, a pack of three inside forwards who, in the 1940s and 1950s, gave Dutch youngsters like Cruyff hope that their footballer wouldn’t always be mediocre. You can find their stats here and Wilkes’s own game-by-game record here.

On the treatment table at Inter Milan 

Inside forwards don’t exist anymore, not in the old sense of attackers who would slot in on either side of the centre forward, between the main striker and the wingers. Their days were numbered as soon as European football began its gradual, irreversible shift away from 2-3-5 – now there’s an obsolete formation I’d love to see Otto Rehhagel reintroduce with Greece – and from its successor WM where the inside-forwards played behind the wingers and the number-nine.But Wilkes’ fame has outlived his old position. In a recent fans all-time Dutch XI he was in the squad, alongside Lenstra, and one fan suggested he ‘looks like Ossie Ardiles’ twin brother”. Actually, to me he looks more like the long lost brother of Andy Roxburgh.

If he’d played a decade or so later, he might be as famous as Cruyff. But when he died, two years ago, at the age of 82, one Dutch fan broke into a gaming forum to announce that” “Faas Wilkes, our first great footballer, died today.”

Which, coming from an Amsterdammer, was some compliment.

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