Two days after Netherlands exited the World Cup on penalties in the quarterfinals against Argentina, Wout Weghorst was back home in Borne. It’s a small town to the east of the Netherlands, near the German border.
There was a match on in town.
His brother Twan was playing up front for Wout’s first club, the amateur side RKSV NEO, who play in the fifth tier of Dutch football. Without any fanfare, and just two days after riling Lionel Messi & Co., Wout was there supporting his local side — another face in the small crowd.
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In a career that has already taken him from playing amateur football until the age of 17 and being written off, to proving his doubters wrong by succeeding in the Bundesliga and having spells in the Premier League and Turkish Super Lig, the town of Borne remains his home. NEO president Edwin Zeevalkink says Wout turning up at his old club just 48 hours after scoring both goals in a World Cup quarterfinal displays the nature of his character. “He’s a beautiful person,” Zeevalkink tells ESPN.
And while there are already detractors saying his short-term move to Manchester United will end in failure — Dutch greats Marco van Basten and Wesley Sneijder have already questioned the loan move to Old Trafford — those close to him are unwavering in their belief that he will succeed. Weghorst is used to shoving critics’ words back in their faces.
PSV Eindhoven manager and legendary Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy knows what it takes to succeed in the Premier League at Manchester United, having scored 150 goals for the club from 2001-06.
“I think Wout has so much character and qualities that he will stand there,” Van Nistelrooy said in a news conference when asked about Weghorst by ESPN. “I experienced him at the Dutch national team. He’s just a great guy, with an incredibly competitive character. We also saw that at the World Cup. Wout is ready for such a step. And he will make his contribution there, I am 100% convinced of that. He has the qualities to make an impact at United.”
That United journey began on Wednesday in their 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace. He started up front alongside Marcus Rashford and Antony and put in 69 minutes at Selhurst Park, meaning he saw Michael Olise‘s stoppage-time equaliser from the bench. United manager Erik ten Hag — who grew up in Haaksbergen, about 12½ miles from Borne — wants Weghorst to be a pressing menace and was pleased with the striker’s debut, admiring his linkup play with midfielder Bruno Fernandes and his ability to draw defenders out of position.
But it wasn’t always like this for him. “You didn’t immediately think that Wout Weghorst was going to make it to professional football. But he believed in himself and worked hard for it,” Gerard Bos, who handed Weghorst his NEO debut, tells ESPN. He was not the most technically adept player, with his teenage growth spurt hardly helping his mind and body stay in sync, and there were few within the club who tipped him for greatness with scouts constantly overlooking him. Despite this, he kept on succeeding and confounding the doubters.
Youth trainer Jurgen Bruggeman worked with a very young Weghorst at C1 (under-15) and D1 (under-13) levels. He recalls that on one trip abroad Weghorst’s teammates took advantage of the situation by staying out late. “That was something Wout could not accept, it took time to teach him that it was not always about winning,” Bruggeman tells ESPN.
Bruggeman often sat in the club’s boardroom talking to Weghorst about his development. Every season the club asked the players to write a self-appraisal. “Wout, as he is, he never handed that in,” he says. “His piece is missing in the yearbook. Two months later I received a letter from Wout apologising. That is also Wout. He has people in his heart.”
Bos adds: “He was such an unprecedented winner at a young age.” He recalls that when Weghorst trained with the first team aged 15, club pros Niels Oude Kamphuis and Dmitri Shoukov frequently tried to put Weghorst in his place in training, but he kept on bouncing back.
“Wout is a pain in the ass on the field for his opponent,” Bos says. “Not everyone appreciates that. But he was also like that when he was young. He always had that drive to succeed in the football world. It even got to the point that people found it annoying. He’s gotten really good. He can be an arrogant player on the field, but that is only visible when he is playing football. Off the field he is not an arrogant person at all.”
When Weghorst turned 19, he joined lower-league side DETO Twenterand and after a move into Willem II’s system, Dutch second division side Emmen picked him up in 2012. Two years later, the Eredivisie’s Heracles Almelo signed him. Even as one of the youngest in the squad, he didn’t have much of a filter.
“Sometimes he went against the grain,” Jeroen Veldmate, a teammate at Heracles, tells ESPN. “I remember in one training session where we going up against each other, he said to me: ‘Can’t you handle the level already?’ He’d just come from a club in the second division where he was sitting on the bench. But his commitment to improving was not normal. He asked the trainer what his plan was for making Wout better. He is afraid of nothing, and I have huge respect for him.”
On Sept. 13, 2014, he scored his first Eredivisie goal in Heracles’ 2-1 defeat to Ajax. Though they lost, that date of him realising his dream of scoring in the Dutch top flight is tattooed on his body. Two years on, AZ Alkmaar signed him for a fee of around €1.5 million and he continued to be a pest in front of goal.
To get away from football, he went on long walks with a man he befriended in a local retirement home. He likes peace and quiet while also finding solace in his faith, with signs of that etched on his body. “It’s actually three tattoos: a church, the hands with a rosary and a text,” he told Helden Online. “I know the text by heart, I wrote it myself. It’s about who I am, that not everyone is perfect.”
But he’s a man of contrasts; in spite that part of him that craves silence and calm, one of the stories from AZ is that he’d rarely leave the training pitch without having pushed his limit, even going to the extent that he’d vomit. “From my upbringing I learned that you have to work very hard for what you want,” Weghorst told ESPN in 2019.
He made his Netherlands debut under Ronald Koeman in March 2018 and, three months later, Bundesliga side Wolfsburg signed him for €10.5m. The money from that transfer trickled back down to his local club NEO due to the various clauses in that original contract. “When Wout played for AZ for the first time, the amounts were lower than Wolfsburg or Burnley but we immediately said that we would use this for the future of the club,” NEO treasurer Wim Goorman tells ESPN. The Wolfsburg and Burnley moves provided funds for the club to install LED lighting and solar panels, and renovate the canteen.
Argentina should’ve known Weghorst’s free kick trick
The World Cup quarterfinal isn’t the first time Wout Weghorst has pulled his clever free-kick trick.
NEO enjoyed another payment when Weghorst signed for Burnley in January 2022 for €14m. But he struggled in the Premier League, managing only two goals in 20 appearances, and following Burnley’s relegation he went on loan to Besiktas. The fans in Istanbul took to him, and he responded by scoring six goals in 13 games and playing is way into Netherlands’ World Cup squad. There he caught the eye with his two goals against Argentina, and the short shrift he gave his famous opponents. The 97th-minute equaliser in that quarterfinal came via a clever free-kick routine, a move he’d crafted at AZ and then took to Wolfsburg and Besiktas.
Though their campaign ended in quarterfinal heartbreak, his performances drew attention from United, who made contact toward the end of December. “He was good enough to play at a high level, but I never thought he was going to make it to this level,” Bruggeman says. “The fact he made it … well, he owes that entirely to himself.”
Following in the footsteps of Van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie, Weghorst became the latest Dutch striker to play for United with his debut on a freezing Wednesday evening in south London.
“We are super proud,” his brother Ralf tells ESPN. “Maybe the World Cup also helped. He has once again pushed through his ceiling. No one expected this. He will try to silence the many critics again. Wout just keeps going. It’s bizarre.”
Additional reporting: The ESPN.NL team