Legendary forward Faas Wilkes is the latest name inducted into the Football-Oranje hall of fame.

  • By M. Joseph Valler

Faas WilkesThe greatest Dutch player of all time?

The often cited Jopie seems to think so; going so far as to call him ‘my idol’. Despite a character reference from no less than Cruyff himself; when Dutch journalists compile a list of their nation’s greatest players, one name stands apart because of its unfamiliarity (certainty to non-Dutch football fans).

At home, Wilkes fame was such that a cartoon character was named, in part, after him; the miracle centre forward ‘Kick Wilstra’ was made up of Wilkes, HFCs Haarlem’s Kick Smit and Heerenveen’s Abe Lenstra. It would be abroad where his memory is most held dear, however; his picture still hangs in the catacombs of the San Siro, Milan; and in the bars and cantinas surrounding the Mestalla, Valencia. In both Italy and Spain, he was a huge celebrity and this is evident in the numbers of 40-50 year old gentlemen in both cities with the name of Servaas.

Whilst he was not the first Dutch player to move abroad, Faas Wilkes was the first to venture from country to country and be an individual success in every league he played in.Wilkes was a precursor to those modern day, travelling Dutchmen who transform every team they play for, regardless of the speed or temperament of that league – the Seedorfs, Koemans, van Nistelrooys, van Bommels and Robbens of modern football.

Servaas “Faas” Wilkes was born on 13th October, 1923; in Rotterdam. Initially, the young Faas dreamed of following in the footsteps of his Father & Uncle and run the family business ‘Wilkes & Zoonen’, a small outfit which specialised in furniture removal.In those early years, Faas worked alongside his brother Leen; lugging, lifting and hoisting for an average of 6 guilders per relocation.

From an early age, Faas excelled at most sports and physical activity but in on April 14, 1941 at the age of 17, he chose football and the local Rotterdam club Xerxes (in which his brother was already a goalkeeper). He made his debut against CVV de Jodan Boys in a 6-0 victory for the Rotterdammers. Wilkes comes from an era where tactics were not as commonplace but individuality was. In every grainy motion picture he appears to be skipping past one, two or three opponents and in every black & white photo he appears to be leaving one in his wake. What is absent from both are teammates and this is probably because they were out of shot, calling for a pass. Wilkes rarely took teammates up on the offer, preferring to trying his own luck – and often succeeding.

As expected from a Dutchman, Faas had impeccable first touch, control as well as skill and agility. His ability to move through defences like a spirit meant that numerous clubs sought his services. At this time, however; football in Holland was on strictly amateur terms. Payment was forbidden and players could only look over enviously at the lucrative contracts offered by professional clubs abroad.

MVV Maastricht wanted Faas Wilkes and even offered payment in the form of two trucks for his family’s business (one for him and one for his brother Leen). Subtle as this was, it did not work; prior to this, Beb Bakhuys had been banned for having accepted money to play for VVV Venlo. This time the KNVB forced the brothers to return to Xerxes whilst MVV forced the brothers to pay them back for the trucks out of their own pockets. Frustrated by the KNVBs stance, Faas began to look for an opportunity to impress those outside the Netherlands.

On May 10th 1947, Faas Wilkes finally got his chance. Previously, Faas had announced himself on the international stage by scoring a hat trick in the 6-3 defeat of Belgium and a brace in the follow up fixture – these two victories led him to be described as ‘The Mona Lisa of Rotterdam’ by the Dutch press. More importantly, however; the publicity led to the offer of an appearance in a proposed exhibition match against a British XI containing Blackpool’s Stanley Matthews, Middlesbrough’s Wilf Mannion and Notts County’s Tommy Lawton.

Faas seized the opportunity and accepted; at Hampden Park in front of 137,000 spectators, he lined up alongside, amongst others; the Italian Carlo Parola (of Juventus) Gunnar’s Gren and Nordhal of Sweden (who went on to join Milan), the Dane Karl-Aage Praest (who went on to join Juventus) and Julien Darui of France (and Lille) in a team selected by the Austrian Coach Karl Rappan. The game ended in a 6-1 loss for the visitors but crucially, Faas now had those desired contacts from the England, Spain, Italy and France.

Following the exhibition game, there were now numerous overseas clubs eager to claim his signature. In 1948, the recent FA Cup winners Charlton Athletic had offered him a contract to which he journeyed to London to discuss – it was reported by Reuters that he had signed but this was not to be due to the swift, brutal intervention of the KNVB.

In 1949, whilst on holiday in Italy; Wilkes was approached by a scout from AC Milan. Not long after this, Inter President Charles Masseroni got wind of the Rossoneri’s approach and, such was the rivalry between the two clubs, he invited Wilkes to dinner at a restaurant, coincidently owned by a Dutchman. The aforementioned restaurateur acted as an interpreter as the deal for 60,000 guilders (per year excluding bonuses) was tabled. Determined not to allow this move to slip from his grasp, Faas agreed there and then to join Inter. The interpreter, in turn, was rewarded by retaining the job for Faas’ first six months in Milan.

Back in the Netherlands, there was uproar. Wilkes had defied the will of Karel Lotsy, the Chairman of the KNVB by completing his transfer. Faas was not the first Dutch player to venture abroad; Gerrit Keizer was the first (to Arsenal) followed by Beb Bakhuys (to FC Metz) and then Gerrit Vreken (to AS Monaco) – the latter two incurring the wrath of the KNVB and banned from International football in the process.

Wilkes’s transfer was considered to be the first major Dutch transfer abroad – particularly with regards to the transfer sum & salary and the consequences of going against Lotsy’s will and becoming a paid professional would be that he would be excluded from the national side for 5 years.

Faas had joined an Inter team which already contained Benito “Veleno” Lorenzi, Amedeo Amadei and in particular, the Hungarian Istvan Nyers. Despite these notables, Wilkes’ addition to the squad and his 17 goals in 34 games; the team could not loosen the Old Lady of Juventus’ grasp on the Scudetto and ended his first season in third place. There was one particular highlight that season, in the derby match in which Nerazzurri emerged victorious over their city rivals 6-5. The following season was an improvement, with Wilkes scoring 23 in 38 games and the team in second place, but this time frustratingly behind city-rivals AC Milan.

Although his teammates often reproached him for his individualism during this time; this, along with the goals that followed, turned Faas into an incredibly popular player amongst the Milanese. Footage of Faas from this time show him gleefully taking on as many as five defenders at a time and seemingly demanding that more join in the attempt to take the ball off him. At certain points it looks as if there are too many and that he will lose possession – something that he then promptly proves wrong. Despite this fearlessness, in his third and final season at the San Siro, Inter would finish third once more. Keeping possession of the ball and the unwanted attention it brought from defenders had begun to take its toll on Faas and he was starting to feel the effects of injury, managing only 7 goals in 23.

In 1952, Wilkes was approached by Torino. The Turin club were slowly rebuilding their side following the Superga air disaster (of only three years before) where a plane carrying almost the entire Torino AC squad (known throughout the world as Il Grande Torino) crashed into Superga Hill near Turin killing everyone on board. This disaster weakened the national side which fielded 10 Torino players who had won 5 consecutive Scudettos.

Wilkes signed but his time at the Stadio Filadelfia was not as productive as at the San Siro due to a knee injury. On 20th June 1953, Torino visited the Mestalla, home of Valencia CF; for an exhibition game honouring Antonio Puschades. Whilst he did not play in this fixture due to his injury, Valencia expressed an interest in the Dutchman.

In 1954, football finally became professional in the Netherlands and Wilkes was welcomed back to the national side; taking his place in a team that included Saint-Etienne’s’ Kees Rijvers and Abe Lenstra. Upon his return, Faas continued to cement his reputation as one of his countries greats and his record of goals 35 goals in 38 games for the Orange would not be broken for 36 years. When it was, it was taken by no less than Dennis Bergkamp.

Wilkes joined Valencia and a Spanish league already boasting the likes of De Stefano of Real Madrid and László Kabala of Barcelona. With Faas’ presence in the team, the Mestalla attendances rose and in his first season at the club, the faithful would see him score 18 goals in 28 games.

In 1954, Faas would win the first and only trophy in his career; the Copa del Generalisimo (now known as the Copa del Rey). Unfortunately, due to rulings which forbade foreign players to play in the final, Wilkes would be forced to watch Valencia beat Barcelona 3-0, from the side-lines. In the interim following this successful season, Wilkes had to undergo surgery to remedy a recently diagnosed goiter disease. Despite these personal problems, Wilkes managed to contribute 9 goals in 15 games which helped his team finished fifth in the table the following season.

In 1955-56 season, the side would achieve sixth place thanks to Wilkes’ 11 goals in 19 matches, but it would be Wilkes’ last season at the Mestalla. Due to persistent physical problems, at the age of 33 Wilkes returned to the Netherlands; choosing the Limburg side VVV Venlo.

The deal was worth 50,000 guilders a year, a contract which displayed Venlo’s intentions to try to become one of the Netherlands’ big clubs. Unfortunately, the infrastructure & systems in place at the club were insufficient and only seventh place was achievable.
After two seasons at Venlo and 23 goals in 64 games, Faas ventured abroad once more; again it was to Valencia but this time to the cities second side, UD Levante. Although it would only be for a single season in the Segunda Division as a player / coach, Wilkes would bring 41 goals in 91 games to the ‘granata’s’ promotion cause. Levante finally managed a second place finish behind Elche but promotion could not be secured due to a playoff defeat to UD Las Palmas.

At 36, Wilkes would return home for the final time and to Limburg once again. Faas Wilkes played three seasons for Fortuna ’54 and scored 33 goals in 88 matches before returning to play out the remainder of his career at his first love, Xerxes; now languishing in the Tweede Divisie group B. On May 26, 1964, Faas Wilkes played his last game of professional football and then retired. Faas Wilkes considered football to be little more than a job and when he retired, he turned his back on football for good; no coaching, no ambassadorial role. He was awarded the freedom of the City of Milan in 1995 and also Rotterdam in 1983, where he opened a clothes shop with his wife.

In August 2006, at the age of 82, the Netherland’s first international star passed away quietly, in Rotterdam.

“He has put our country on the International Football map”
– Henk Kesler, KNVB Director 2000 – 2010

Matthew Valler (7 Posts)