FC Groningen is that Eredivisie club you’ve definitely heard of but know little else about.
The city itself is the sixth largest in the Netherlands, but from a footballing perspective Groningen’s only major honour is the KNVB Cup they won in 2014/15.
They have predominantly been a top flight side and had a golden era in the late 1980s, yet have never finished higher than third in the Eredivisie and have only played sparingly in Europe.
When the 2019/20 Eredivisie season was recently abandoned, Groningen were ninth out of 20 teams, while last season yielded an eighth place finish.
But notwithstanding their relative international obscurity, Groningen is a club that has produced a number of world famous players over the years, either from their own junior ranks or providing a vital stepping stone in the careers of others brought in from elsewhere.
Michael Reiziger was a product of the revered Ajax academy and made his first-team debut at 17, although it was on loan at Groningen in the early 1990s that the future Netherlands international got his first taste of a full season of senior top flight football.
Having previously played a handful of games during a loan at Volendam, a 20-year-old Reiziger joined Groningen for the 1993/94 season and featured in every league game.
Just a year later he was lining up for parent club Ajax against AC Milan in the 1995 Champions League final. He was soon poached by Milan and later spent seven years at Barcelona, where he played over 200 games and won two La Liga titles and the Copa del Rey.
At international level, Reiziger was also part of Netherlands squads that reached semi-finals at major tournaments in 1998, 2000 and 2004.
Much like Reiziger, Daley Blind is another example of an Ajax youngster being sent to Groningen to build much needed first-team experience. He was 19 going on 20 when he spent the latter half of the 2009/10 campaign with the ‘Green and White army’.
Blind hadn’t featured at all for Ajax in the first half of that season but he then didn’t miss a game for Groningen during his loan, starting 16 of his 17 total Eredivisie appearances for the club.
Blind was part of the first-team picture at Ajax the next season and was a regular starter by early 2012. His performances at the 2014 World Cup prompted a move to Manchester United, where he played 56 times in the 2015/16 season alone.
After returning to Ajax in 2018, Blind was part of the side that came within literal seconds of reaching the 2019 Champions League final.
Dusan Tadic was a teammate of Blind’s in that remarkable Ajax run that included famous wins over Real Madrid and Juventus. Having reinvented himself as a prolific goalscorer, he lit up the Bernabeu against Real and was praised across Europe.
Tadic netted 38 goals in all competitions in 2018/19 and was nominated for the 2019 Ballon d’Or in recognition of his performances – a far cry from the player Southampton were willing to let go.
Tadic had risen through the ranks at Vojvodina in his native Serbia and made the switch to western Europe aged 21 when he joined Groningen in the summer of 2010 for a little over €1m.
The player spent two years with the club, prior to a 2012 switch to Twente, which in turn paved the way for him to move to the Premier League with Southampton in 2014.
Born and raised locally, Arjen Robben joined Groningen’s youth ranks as a school boy and was a first-team debutant in December 2000 while he was still a few weeks shy of his 17th birthday.
The electric winger only spent one full season at Groningen after that, with PSV Eindhoven paying a shade under €4m to sign him in the summer of 2002 while still only 18.
His sharp development continued in Eindhoven, winning the Eredivisie title in 2002/03, prompting interest from both Manchester United and Chelsea. He wound up joining the latter and won back-to-back Premier League titles and the FA Cup.
Real Madrid came calling after that, while Robben went on to make himself a club legend during a trophy-laden decade at Bayern Munich. He will be remembered as one of the very best players of his generation and was voted the fourth best in the world in 2014.
Although famed for developing young Dutch players in particular, Groningen gambled on a 19-year-old Luis Suarez that scouts had seen in action for Uruguayan giants Nacional while initially monitoring a different player in South America.
Groningen paid an estimated €800,000 to bring Suarez to Europe, watching him score 15 times in his debut season in 2006/07. That was enough to gran the attention of Dutch giants Ajax and a €7.5m sale, forced along by a complaint from the player, resulted in Groningen profiting almost 10-fold.
Suarez exploded in Amsterdam, scoring 22 goals, then 28, and later 49, before Liverpool paid a club record £22.8m midway through the 2010/11 campaign.
Despite several controversies, he remains a hero for his time at Anfield, not least for his role in the 2013/14 campaign. Barcelona then paid over €80m for his services, at which time he was actually suspended by FIFA for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup.
Ronald Koeman was the ultimate goalscoring defender throughout his career, netting over 250 times at club and international level. That all began at first club Groningen, with whom he made his professional debut as a 17-year-old in 1980.
His obvious quality ensured it wasn’t long before Ajax snapped him, followed by a move to domestic rivals PSV in 1986. There, Koeman won three consecutive Eredivisie titles and the European Cup as part of a golden side coached by Guus Hiddink.
The player won a second career European Cup in 1992 with Barcelona under the management of Johan Cruyff, scoring the only goal in the final at Wembley. He also won four La Liga titles in Spain, and the 1988 European Championship at international level.
Koeman’s elder brother Erwin, a fellow winner in the Dutch squad at Euro ’88, was also a Groningen player during his own career, having three separate spells with the club in total.
Virgil van Dijk
Groningen took full advantage when Willem II stalled on offering a contract to an 18-year-old Virgil van Dijk in 2010. It was humble beginnings for the player Liverpool made the most expensive defender in history only eight years later as he used to travel to training on a bicycle.
Van Dijk’s first full season in the Groningen first-team was prematurely ended when he contracted appendicitis and required life-saving surgery. He was hospitalised for 13 days and initially struggled walking just 10m. But then he played every game in 2012/13 and joined Celtic.
Two Scottish titles and a growing reputation convinced Southampton to pay £13m to take Van Dijk south to England, where he worked under fellow Groningen alumnus in the Koeman brothers.
Liverpool obliterated their transfer record to sign the Dutchman for £75m in January 2018. He has been one of the final pieces in the puzzle for the Reds, has already played in two Champions League finals and was second only to Lionel Messi in the 2019 Ballon d’Or.