Faas Wilkes may not have been the first Dutch footballer to find fame and fortune oversees – three other Dutchmen had played abroad pre-WW2 – but he was the first to play in Italy’s mighty Serie A, and he was undoubtedly the first to awaken the broader footballing world to just how good Dutch players could be. And any player that Johan Cruyff cited as his boyhood hero – as he did with Wilkes – must have been particularly special!
This fast, elegant and prolific striker enjoyed a lengthy career which compensated somewhat for the early years lost through the war. He made his debut for the Rotterdam club Xerxes at the age of 21 in 1945 and set about making up for lost time. Playing typically on the right side of attack or as an out-and-out centre-forward, his fantastic close control, mazy dribbling and emphatic finishing skills meant he could function simultaneously as both a winger and centre-forward.
Within 12 months of his debut he earned a first call-up for the Dutch national team and he found goals came just as naturally for him on the international stage. So rapid was his development that he was selected to play for the Rest of Europe team which played Great Britain on its re-entry to FIFA in 1947.
However by the end of the decade frustration was starting to mount for the player. The KNFV stuck adamantly to its amateur policy meaning that Wilkes, a player who by now was being spoken about approvingly across the continent, could derive no official financial remuneration for his efforts.
An opportunity to sign for Internazionale came along in 1949 and the forward didn’t hesitate. He spent the next three years at the San Siro as part of a wonderful front line that also featured Benito Lorenzi, Amedeo Amadei and Istvan Nyers and, despite the strongest of competition from his esteemed teammates, Wilkes continued to score goals at a rate of one every two games – just as he had for Xerxes.
During those three seasons Inter finished consistently in the top three but could not quite dislodge a dominant Juventus, despite the best efforts of Wilkes and co. His third and final season was blighted by a knee injury and in the summer of 1952 Inter were happy to transfer him to fellow Serie A club Torino. This would be the one failure of his long career and his single injury-plagued season in Turin brought just a single goal.
The following summer he departed and his foreign adventure continued with a move to Valencia. Now aged 30 and with a questionable fitness record, the move was something of a gamble for the Spaniards that would pay off handsomely.
The goals flowed, 38 of them in 62 games, and the Dutchman was Valencia’s top scorer in both 1954 and 1956 and also technically a Copa del Rey winner, albeit a non-playing one as foreign players were allowed to play in every round of the competition apart from the Final.
It was testament to the huge impact that Wilkes made that it set in motion a love-in between Valencia and the Dutch, a relationship that endured until the less successful signing of Johnny Rep two decades later.
Now aged 33, Faas Wilkes returned home to join VVV Venlo in 1956 after seven years abroad. A bi-product of his return was a recall to the national side following the petty 5-year ban imposed upon him during his foreign sojourn, a ban that had damaged the prospects of the national team much more than it had ever hurt Wilkes.
How valuable a player he was to their efforts was demonstrated by his record of 35 goals in 38 appearances, a record that endured until it was finally overtaken by Denis Bergkamp.
Expected to be winding down towards retirement and still troubled by knee issues, Faas Wilkes continued to score for the Limburg club almost as prolifically as he had elsewhere. This took him back to Valencia for another brief spell, though this time in the second-tier with the city’s second club Levante. Another top scorer award for Wilkes followed but even this was not quite enough to earn Levante a first promotion to La Liga.
Still his sheer joy of playing meant he refused to quit the game and went on to spend the next three seasons with Fortuna ‘54, then finally a poignant two-year spell back with his first club Xerxes, by now in the third tier but working their way back to the top after a period in amateur football.
It’s quite a reflection on how the game has changed in the intervening half century that such a brilliant player as Wilkes, one who was a standard-bearer for the startling emergence of the Dutch game which started to bloom in the years just after his retirement, could play so many games (around 500), score so many goals (around 260) and yet win no major honour during his two-decade long career.
The legacy he endowed upon the Dutch game at least will always be much more valuable than mere trinkets and medals.