In the kitchen upstairs at the Oncle Jean restaurant in Breda, a Dutch city an hour’s drive south of Amsterdam, 16-year-old Abubakar Abdulle is emptying the dishwasher and listening in amusement as his manager explains why a British newspaper has come to visit.
Abubakar is being told about Oncle Jean’s most famous dishwashing alumni, and currently the country’s most successful football export: Virgil Van Dijk. The Liverpool and Holland defensive colossus and soon to be Professional Footballers’ Association player of the year.
As a 17 year-old, Van Dijk worked at Oncle Jean between school and training at the academy of Eredivise club Willem II, a 30-minute train ride east in the town of Tilburg. He would pick up his bike at Breda train station and cycle the 15 minutes for a shift at Oncle Jean in one of the city’s more expensive neighbourhoods.
There is a bar and a restaurant and various other rooms which the proprietors proudly announce can accommodate christenings, birthday celebrations, weddings and wakes. It was built in 1935, requisitioned as a mechanic’s workshop during the war and is also the place that football’s most expensive defender, the £75 million Van Dijk, washed dishes for around €4 an hour plus a cut of the tips. He was a kitchen grafter at an age when many 17-year-old prodigies are now signing contracts in the multiples of millions.