Los Angeles, the venue for our shoot with LA Galaxy star, Nigel de Jong, is a city where fiction is often confused with reality. When Nigel de Jong karate-kicked Xabi Alonso during the 2010 World Cup final, his reputation as a footballing hard-man was all but sealed. Regular viewers of the EPL, had long grown used to him snarling at the heels of opponents and with his shaved head and boxers physique it was all to easy to cast him as some sort of footballing pantomime villain. However, when we meet to shoot for issue four of Associated, it quickly becomes apparent that his persona off the pitch is very different. The guy that turns up is polite, humble, and dare I say...nice.
De Jong wrong footed many footballing pundits when he signed for LA Galaxy from AC Milan in February. After all, this was a player who had just recently signed a new contract with AC Milan and who is still in his footballing prime at 31. We’d long grown accustomed to the likes of Pirlo, Lampard and Gerrard winding down their illustrious careers with one last ‘swan-song’ in the MLS but De Jong has obviously got a lot still to offer. However, when you consider the lifestyle and winning history of the Galaxy and the personality of the man himself, it’s not difficult to conclude that this is a good match-up.
Given the demands of today’s top footballer we were initially told our time would be limited for the shoot but De Jong threw himself into the whole concept of it with the kind of enthusiasm he normally displays on the pitch. This is no shrinking violet and he obviously has an eye for style as he was immediately comfortable with the brands the stylist had selected for the shoot. Labels such as John Elliott, Rag & Bone and Public School are not for the novice fashionista and when he mentions that his wife is a designer with her own label it becomes obvious that this a man with more than a passing knowledge of fashion. And after a couple of shots, it becomes clear that he is a natural in front of the camera too.
De Jong made his professional debut at 16 and exudes the confidence and self possession forged by an early exposure to publicity.“ I made my debut in Holland at 16, so that’s a long time playing top level professional football,” he tells us when asked about his latest move and the lure of America. “The game has become too political in Europe, with club Presidents getting involved and influencing team selection. Then you have all the media intrusion. It became less about the actual game so I felt I needed a change and the only place I wanted to play was in Los Angeles and the Galaxy.”
Despite signing a new long-term contract with AC Milan in the summer, De Jong decided to terminate it after falling out of favor with new manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. And despite the interest of a number of EPL clubs, he asked Milan to negotiate with the MLS for a transfer to Galaxy. It’s a move that has raised a few eyebrows given that Galaxy already have a number of high profile players and a player of his caliber is still worth a few million dollars in transfer fees. It’s a great piece of business by Galaxy and, the player himself suggests, a reward for his loyalty at Milan.
“I always had a good relationship with the President of Milan,” he explains. “I was always one of the first in at training and the last out and I think the club respected that and so when I made my request to make the transfer to Galaxy happen they really worked hard to make it happen.” When it is suggested that it’s still unusual for a player of his caliber, at this stage of his career, to end up in the MLS he is unequivocal: “I have always been single-minded and did my own thing. I have never followed the herd. I am not your regular footballer, I do what feels right and I feel Los Angeles is the perfect place to start a new chapter.”
“It’s the same when I first moved to Manchester City, everybody told me it wasn’t the right time and that I wouldn’t enjoy it but I proved them wrong. We won the League didn’t we?” De Jong was an integral part of Roberto Mancini’s revolution at Man City, that saw them win the title on the last day of the season and with almost the last kick of the ball.
It’s clear during conversation that he has settled quickly into life in America and when pressed on whether he misses Europe or if he has any interest in the upcoming Euros, his response is unequivocal, “Nah I don’t miss it at all, I love it here. As for the Euros I don’t really care, my life is here now.” When pressed on the state of the current Dutch national team, he merely shrugs and says, “the manager is called Blind for a reason you know.” (Current manager, Danny Blind, father of Manchester United’s, Daley Blind, has been heavily criticized for the Netherland’s failure to qualify for this summer Euros in France.)
As someone who came up through the ranks of the much vaunted Ajax youth system, where players are taught to play as a team but also think for themselves, in much the same way Special Forces trainees are, de Jong is evidently a confident, thoughtful man. His assimilation to the American lifestyle has been instant and he has even embraced American sports. “I love watching NFL, always have. I used to watch it in Europe when it was first shown over there and I am a massive Steelers fan. I also went to watch the LA Kings recently and loved it, ice hockey is way more exciting than basketball.”
His views on the game over here highlight familiar issues still faced by American soccer. “The fitness is good, the technique not so much but it’s still a challenge to playin different conditions and on the artificial pitches. I hear Dallas is brutal when it’s hot and Denver in the altitude was tough.” He is also complimentary towards his coach Bruce Arena who he feels is a good “man-manager.” “He works more on emotions and he understands that players with the experience of me and Stevie (Gerrard) and Robbie (Keane) don’t need to be taught about tactics. I’m just really enjoying my football here.”
It’s clear, he is enjoying living his life away from the harsh spotlight of the sporting media. This relative anonymity is one of the great attractions of the MLS for top players who have competed for years in Europe’s top leagues. The public often forget that players like him and Gerrard, while well paid, have spent most of their formative years doing repetitive training drills and living spartan lifestyles to achieve this kind of success. It’s an unforgiving and relentless regime and so the opportunity to still play the game they clearly love and discover new interests and develop as a person has great appeal for these players.
With the shoot over, de Jong immediately invites the crew for lunch, which only serves to remind us that he has been seriously miscast. Which should come as no surprise in this city of make-believe and fantasy.