Last summer, Man United wanted to sign Benfica’s Nicolas Gaitan. Sir Alex was happy to offer 25 Mio euros + Fabio and Macheda. Benfica refused.
Today, Gaitan warms the bench and Benfica has a new young star. The Black Pearl (Mark II) has arrived: Ola John.
Ola’s older brother Collins is still a pro. He plays his football for English club Barnet. The twice capped striker started his career at Twente and took him to all sorts of places. From the EPL (Fulham), to Belgium, the US competition, Iran even (!) and now back to England.
But his biggest claim to fame, by now, is being Ola’s manager (and role model, but more…like how you don’t manage your career).
When young talent John came through the Twente ranks and left at an early age to Portugal, most fans thought he would make the same mistake as his brother (chasing the money at a young age).
But Ola himself tells a different story. “I actually didn’t want to leave Twente. Collins is not my manager either. He does support me of course, but I went to talk about opening up my contract at Twente but instead of that they said they accepted an offer from Benfica. That was a surprise for me. I remember saying: Good for you, but I will determine where I will play my football!”.
John’s manager Frank Schouten confirms this. “We were flabbergasted. Nine mio euros was the deal. Ola decided to check Benfica out. We went for a day, but Ola wasn’t able to decide. He was on his way back to the airport when Twente called and asked him to stay a couple of days longer. He had training the next day, but Twente allowed him to forget about that.”
In those days, John felt that Benfica really wanted him. They did what they could to make him feel at home. “I remember playing Benfica for the CL qualifications the season before. I played a good game and after the match their coach came up to me and said “very good game”. I don’t think I ever heard that from the opposing coach, haha. When we went to play there, the players of Benfica told me I was going into the wrong dressing room. In hindsight, it seems they had an eye on me for a while.”
“When I met Rui Costa, Benfica’s manager, he said he only needed to watch a video of my highlights for 15 minutes to know he wanted to sign me. And they followed me for 20 games! It was clear that the coach knew exactly what my qualities are and how to use me, I was really impressed.”
Ola John is a football fanatic. He watches everything and is very aware of the qualities of Benfica. “I followed the competition and knew most players. Benfica as a club, with their history and players like Eusebio, Nuno Gomes, Rui Costa… I always liked them. I remember that big game against Man United of two seasons back in the CL and they do have a reputation of making players better.”
And John is right. Benfica is not like Man City or Chelsea. They don’t buy big names and spend money. Benfica is – more even than any Dutch club – capable of spending a couple of millions to on-sell players after they developed for multiples. John: “People who think I went to Benfica for the money don’t know football. I would have gone somewhere else for that, if that was my goal. At Benfica, we play modern 4-3-3 football. We play CL almost every season and we play for trophies domestically. A great step for me and I improve here daily.”
John plays on the left flank when their game against Barcelona is on. Due to injuries, the coach asks the Liberian born to play on the right wing. John plays against Carlos Planas and is Man of the Match. In the Barca game, Ola John demonstrates that he is the complete package. Physically strong, explosive and fast and he is a good decision maker. He can dribble, play pass and move, he has a good long pass and cross and he can score goals. Skilled and intelligent. How is it possible that the Dutch Under21 coach believes VVV winger Wildschut is better?
Judging him on his Barcelona game, John is better than Lens, Narsingh, Elia and Schaken and belongs in the Big Oranje.
Frank Schouten is used to scouts from other clubs to harass him. “After the Barca game, the Man City scout came up to me to ask when John’s deal ended in Portugal. The Sunderland scout asked me for players like Ola, but in a less expensive category….”
John was brought with care. His coach didn’t throw him for the lions, but allowed him to get used to the football in Portugal. I didn’t agree. I wanted to play. But they talked to me about Angel di Maria. He played 12 games in his first season. 14 games in his second season, and then Real Madrid signed him for 33 mio euros. Benfica plays 60 games per season, so you will always play a good number of them.
“Practice every day with guys like Aimar, Cardozo, Gaitan, Bruno Cesar and Luisao is something else. I played with Theo Janssen at Twente. An amazing kicker of the ball. But check out what our striker Cardozo can do with it. That takes it to a different level altogether. In Holland, training is mostly skills based. Here it is too but also more tactics. I think I have become smarter here, as a player.”
Heading a ball is the only weakness in John’s game. “I never had to. I was always used on the flank. I was the man of the cross. I am perfectly two footed, thanks to Boudewijn Pahlplatz and Theo ten Caat, my youth coaches at Twente.”
Despite his one weakness, Ola John is dazzling the pundits in Portugal. In his first full game, Benfica won 3-0 and John was involved in all three goals. He has played everything since.
The only downside of living in Portugal is the intensity of trainings camps. “At Twente, you slept at home before a home game. In Portugal, we basically live on the trainings ground. We have our own rooms there and we have camps for every game. That takes getting used to. You’re never home. But my girlfriend understands. We love life here. We hang out with Ricky van Wolfswinkel and his girlfriend a lot. He helped me find my way a bit here.”
Ola John may not have been on the radar of the youth teams in Zeist, but Bert van Marwijk did select him for his first trainings camp with Oranje. “That was great. A nice confirmation. I remember I had to pass as I got injured, but I knew I was on a list in Zeist. When Van Gaal started to use all the youngsters in his campaign, I knew I was close to a call up. All you can do is perform at your club. This is what Mr Van Gaal told me too. Simply focus on playing well and regularly for the club. I trust that everything else will follow from that. Any next step, or any Oranje invitation. I focus on what I can influence: my game and my contributions to Benfica.”