‘Wardrobe’ Gudelj got everyone at AZ to beet juice (with their noses shut)
Bun, beard, body full of tattoos, closet of a body. An imposing appearance, as it is called. And whether Nemanja Gudelj is. He didn’t make it with Ajax, but via wanderings in China and Portugal he has reached the final of the Europa League with Sevilla.
A profile of the 31-year-old Serbian-Dutch footballer.
Celtic Park, a drizzly Thursday night in the 2015/2016 Europa League season. Czech teenager Vaclav Cerny, dressed in a poison green shirt, shoots Ajax to victory just before time. He wants to run to the away box to celebrate his goal with the fans, but changes his mind when he sees Ajax’s bench.
Cerny interrupts his sprint and turns off to the right, toward the bench. He reduces speed, calculates his strides, jumps up and ends up in Gudelj’s arms. “Whenever I scored, he was always one of the first with me. It just clicked between us,” Cerny, now an FC Twente player, looks back.
From Gudelj, the young Cerny may enjoy his winning goal at Celtic for no less than one day. Then the focus should really be back on the league match against PEC Zwolle, a few days later. It is typical of Gudelj’s perception of sport, who sees Cerny as his little brother.
Sleeping with the Gudelj brothers
Cerny is just arriving at that time, while Gudelj is a major purchase. Ajax paid six million euros for the AZ captain the summer before. “I definitely looked up to him,” says Cerny, who also gets along well with Dragisa Gudelj, Nemanja’s younger brother, who is then in the Jong Ajax selection.
“I sometimes slept with them,” Cerny recalls. “We played a lot of FIFA or went somewhere together after the game. But mostly he taught me how to live as a pro. He knew exactly what he wanted and what it took to perform.”
These are words underlined by Hennie Spijkerman, Frank de Boer’s assistant coach at Ajax at the time. “Nemanja always worked hard. He wasn’t really an outlier in terms of technique, but he was in terms of work ethic.”
At Ajax, the powerhouse is brought in because of his physicality, mentality and kicking technique. A former captain of AZ, he quickly adapted in Amsterdam. “Often vedettes from outside have to get used to it, since there are more vedettes walking around at Ajax. So he realized that,” Spijkerman said.
‘Not a Peter Bosz footballer’
Yet Gudelj does not quite live up to Amsterdam’s expectations. Frank de Boer’s last season as coach is mainly characterized by agonizingly slow, almost soporific soccer. On the last match day, that play is rewarded by the loss of the national title at the Vijverberg, the match of De Graafschap player Bryan Smeets.
De Boer goes, Peter Bosz comes. He wants Ajax to play more attacking and especially faster. Gudelj is passed over and later informs Bosz that he finds it hard to be a substitute. Bosz intervenes and sends his pupil to Jong Ajax. Not much later, Gudelj leaves for a lucrative adventure to China.
“He wasn’t really a Peter Bosz footballer,” concludes Martin Haar, who experienced Gudelj at AZ. “He is more of an Edson Álvarez type. Important for balance and with his mentality. But Neno Has a better kicking technique and more scoring ability. Qualities that would suit the current Ajax.”
Haar, an assistant coach in Alkmaar for many years, also praises Gudelj’s character, whom he invariably Neno mentions. “A real sports guy. Unyielding, with the absolute will to succeed. A pro at heart. With his lifestyle an ultimate example for many at AZ at the time.”
Beet juice with the nose closed
It is a role Gudelj’s compatriot Dusan Tadic has been praised for at Ajax in recent years. Setting the tone in terms of sportsmanship. On the field, but especially off it. Always take good care of yourself. Get enough rest, watch your diet and train where you can.
“Neno also had a body as big as a closet and as dry as a sheet of sand. That impressed the other boys. They went along with that,” says Haar, who immediately comes up with an anecdote.
“At one point he drank beet juice after every training session. That would make for a better recovery. But he thought it was pretty gross. So he would close his nostrils and clock in that juice. He was such an example, that at one point I could see about eight guys drinking beet juice with their noses closed.”
Meanwhile, Gudelj was a routine player with an atypical career. He did not become saturated with Chinese millions in his pocket. With Sevilla, along with match-winner Luuk de Jong, he already won the Europa League in 2020. Now José Mourinho’s AS Roma awaits in the final.
Who would have thought it when he left Ajax through the back door in 2017. “That he is still showing it at Sevilla after a period in China is very clever,” Spijkerman assessed. “He owes that to his attitude, by always doing everything for it. And leaving it.”
“I have always said he is of value for any top club in Europe,” Cerny let loose about his old friend. “He has the real will to win and has the Serbian temperament to go through fire for you.”