We met with Cristian Chivu, central defender and captain of AFC Ajax Amsterdam, in the media room of the Amsterdam Arena on Thursday, March 06, 2002, four days after the Ajax-Feyenoord match. Chivu makes a good impression as a 'regular' guy, free of unbecoming arrogance or false modesty. He showed up ready to talk, to laugh and to make the most of our 20 or so minutes together. Menno and I both really liked this guy, after this little bit of contact.
We began the interview by asking whether he'd ever heard of Ajax USA...
Chivu: Of course. I always go onto Internet, and I always visit Ajax USA.
Ajax USA: Really?
Chivu: Yeah, but it's not a long time that I've been seeing it. John O'Brien was checking it in the dressing room, so I didn't know it was there. And now I always look... I read my (discussion board) messages!
Ajax USA: So do you remember this picture? (We showed him a copy of the picture below.)
Chivu: Yes, of course.
Chivu holding the cup of ambiguous value, following the Sporting Farense game. [Photo: Louis van de Vuurst/Ajax.nl]
Ajax USA: What were you thinking at that moment? This was the game in Portugal.
Chivu: It was the first game, I think. Against Farense. It was funny because I didn't expect we were gonna get a trophy after that game, so this is why I had the... Ah! It was funny. Hilarious. I didn't expect that.
Ajax USA: And the game was unremarkable.
Chivu: It wasn't a good game, because it was a bad field over there, and no fans, nothing. Just we and the Farense team. It was a really funny game. And then, after the game, this trophy was... unexpected.
Ajax USA: You're captain this year. Did that change your approach to the game at all?
Chivu: Yeah, it changed me a lot. Of course, there is a human being under these clothes, and I am captain of this great team. And as a player it makes me more responsible. I get more concentrated, because... I don't want to make mistakes when everybody is watching me. I think it's best to give this responsibility to a young player, especially when he really cares about it. And I care about it, and I'm really proud of it.
Ajax USA: I formed an impression of you last year when I was watching the Ajax documentary (Ajax - Daar Hoorden Zij Engelen Zingen), and there was some footage of you after you had gotten some red cards, which was very uncharacteristic for you. And you just seemed extremely heart-broken. You're very serious about the game.
Chivu: Yeah, very serious. Especially when I step on the field. Everything is finished for me, every thought that I had before, other thoughts, are over, and I'm thinking only of the game. And I want to do everything for that game. And of course I'm only 21 and I have had moments in the game when I was unconcentrated, when I was thinking of other things and I took the game a bit easy. And maybe I still have those now, but I'm the captain of this team and I'm responsible, and it makes me more concentrated. And of course I was heart-broken because it was my first month here in Ajax and it was my second red card in five days.
Chivu examines the photograph (above) from Sporting Farense friendly. [Photo: Ajax USA]
Ajax USA: And you were 17 or something?
Chivu: 18. Yeah, I was 18 when I started playing here... Of course I did everything for the team, and I did it because I thought that it's the right decision to do that, to help the team.
But I didn't expect that in five days I would take two red cards. And then came two more. So, in the end there were four. But I am here now, and I'm happy that I learned from that. And I've gone two years (since then), I think, without a red card and only three yellow cards. That means a lot for a central defender.
And now, against Feyenoord, I took a further one, but I did it to help the team because it was a counter and I thought that I was too late, and I knew that on the right side there were two guys completely free so I had to stop that, and... I did it. I took only a yellow card. I was happy. (Laughs)
Ajax USA: So what was your impression of that game, as a player?
Chivu: Against Feyenoord? Of course, it was special because Ajax and Feyenoord are going for the title. It was a special game for us, and for them as well. But I think we played far better than them, and we created more chances, and in the end we deserved to win. But of course when they have two chances in 90 minutes and they score one, it's difficult for us. And I'm happy that we came back after one-nil. And in ten minutes we created a lot of chances, so, we could have won that game.
Ajax USA: Sometimes the team seems to be running at about 90%, relying on skill, and then you give up a goal or something and suddenly Ajax is just great guns.
Chivu: Yeah, I've got that feeling too, and now especially (after) the Feyenoord goal. I think that everybody wanted to go 100% after that goal.
And, of course... when we go on the field, we want to give everything. But I've got a feeling that we only want, and that we don't do it. And we need something, you know, clicking, to score a goal or the opponent scores a goal, and then we go for it. But I think that's because we're inexperienced and we have a very young team. But I'm very happy that, after one-nil against Feyenoord, that we gave everything and... we could have won that game.
But now it's nine more games to play, and we have to play like we played against Feyenoord, and especially like we played the last ten minutes against Feyenoord. It's just nine games, and we have to give everything if we want to be champions. If we just get in and say, 'Okay we play football, maybe we keep it more behind, they don't score and we have a chance and we score.' Now we have to go for it. That's the best, I think. That's the only chance we have right now. Because it's not any more what the trainer will teach you, or how many supporters are behind you, it's just... What do you feel here? (tapping chest) And you just go for it.
Ajax USA: What do you think tactically has to happen to win the championship?
Chivu: I think since Koeman came, it's far better. I mean, we're more organized as a team and we have something that we know from the start. It's not like, 'Okay we're football players and we just play football.' No. Now we know something. We have our idea of playing, and that's a very good thing.
But now in those games, when the pressure is a lot and you play with your mouth in your throat (sic), it's just coming from your heart. Like everything, you just (have) to give everything, to die on the field, actually.
And I've got a feeling that everyone wants that thing, especially after that (Feyenoord) game.
Chivu answers a question from Menno. [Photo: Ajax USA]
Ajax USA: In this stage of the competition, it seems like the problem of Ajax is more up front. The team has problems scoring goals, really. Defensively, with you and Bergdolmo in the center, it looks rock-solid this year. Better than last year, and better than the beginning of the season.
Chivu: Yeah, it's true. As I said, now we're more organized as a team. Before, the problem was the team, not down to three or four defenders, but the team. And now I think we defend much better as a team and everybody's working hard to recover that ball, and everybody's taking care of his man. And that's a very good feeling.
But, as you said, the problem is scoring goals. We're not very concentrated in front of the goal. This is normal. We are human beings, and the pressure is high on the forwards.
Ajax USA: Do you have a particular sense of a partnership with Bergdolmo? Do you guys work on your roles, in terms of each other and what your responsibilities are?
Chivu: Yeah, with Andre, you know, it's easy to play because he's not only a defender. He reads the game very good and he sees everything and he always tries to help me. It's something that is clicking. I can't say what, but it's clicking.
I know that he's always behind me. I know that I can take always a risk, and I can do something stupid, because he's there and he knows the same thing about me. So, we don't have to talk, like "Andre you do that, I do that." We just feel each other. That's a very good thing.
And we are friends also, outside of this building. Very important. We discussed a lot about how we're playing, what to do and where, what. It's very good. And I feel very good with him because he's not the kind of a player who's only... okay, he's a central defender but he's a defender and he can play football as well. That's very good.
Risk is part of football. It's not normal when you're a central defender, but we like to take risks sometimes, because he knows that I help him and I will give everything, I will give my man away and I will go to help him, even if the guy's gonna go and my guy's gonna score or something. I play more secure and much better when I know that I want to help him, not "Okay, I'll leave him alone and stay with my man." Not very good. And he's doing the same thing for me.
Chivu, whose confidence in Bergdolmo helps him to take part in attacking play, is pictured after scoring against RBC Roosendaal in September 2001. [Photo: ANP]
Ajax USA: Did you get mad when he took your job as penalty-taker?
Chivu: No, no no. (Laughs) I'm very happy, you know!? I think Andre's taking the penalties better than me. He's more relaxed and, of course he's 30 years old and he has experience in Champions League, national team, and... I'm very happy that he's taking the penalties.
And, as I said, he's taking better than me and he deserves to take them right now. Well, I'm second. We have a deal. If there's two penalties in a game, he take the first, I take the second. But when he score, it's okay. And I told him, "Even if you miss, you're gonna shoot again." And we do our job... But I'm happy that he's scoring.
Ajax USA: He scored the 5,000th goal for Ajax.
Chivu: He didn't know that, I didn't know either. But it's good that he scored it, and against Feyenoord to make it one-one.
Ajax USA: Maybe it wasn't a penalty, but...
Chivu: Football is always a penalty. (Laughs)
Ajax USA: Stupid fan-question: What do you do, other than football, for enjoyment?
Chivu: Uh, everything what a young guy can do. I don't know. I have my hobbies. I like to play tennis, for example. I like to go to the cinema to watch a movie, a new movie. I like to listen to music. Lot of things that a young guy can do. Go out to have a coffee, go out to have a drink or something. There are a lot of things. But first of all, if I feel tired, I take my rest. That's very important.
Chivu, who does not resent the loss of his role as chief penalty-kick taker to Bergdolmo, fails to convert from the spot against Roda JC in August. [Photo: ANP]
Ajax USA: A little bit about the national team. You play for Romania. What was the after-effect of not qualifying for the World Cup?
Chivu: Oh, it was awful. It was a bad experience, of course, to not qualify for the World Cup, especially when you play a play-off game against Slovenia, who is not really a team who deserve to play a World Cup tournament. But yeah, we were unlucky, they got qualified. And when I had to come back here to Ajax, I was very disappointed. I had to continue to play football, because, ach, this is football. Sometimes you win, sometime you lose. Even if you're disappointed, you have to go to work again.
But I came back to Ajax, and it was difficult because two games came and I lost again, against PSV and NAC. It was awful for me, that period. And I realized I have to go on, I have to forget about it, because, as I said, this is football. But it was terrible weeks for me.
There were two weeks and I couldn't talk, I couldn't say anything, I was just, you know, like a doll. I was just sitting like this and "Okay, I go..." And then I went through that and I said, "Okay, I have to do it for me and I have to do it for the team... that I have to forget about everything." But it was an awful period. Even worse than the red cards. Because in my mind of course, to not qualify for the World Cup, it's a big tournament and I'm 21 and I wanted to be there, but it was not possible. And then I came here and we were first in the competition, in the league, and then we lost two games at home. It was awful.
Ajax USA: About your age, 21, very young still. How do you feel in the Ajax team? Do you feel like one of the more experienced guys now? Or still as a youngster? You're somewhere in between at the moment.
Chivu: Somewhere between, yeah. But I'm still 21. People are watching me, they see me as an experienced player and they expect a lot from me. But sometimes, you know, I'm 21 and it's normal for a young player to make mistakes. But I feel that people don't accept my mistakes anymore. Ach, they got used to it. I played European Cup, I played well, and they forgot that I'm only 21.
And now especially that I'm the captain of the team. But I can deal a little bit with this pressure. But I just want to be treated as a young player. That's all.
I feel I've a lot to learn, and I still need the experience. I know that I will have my time to learn those things because you can't learn everything all of a sudden in one time. So, playing with Ajax, definitely I will learn, I will develop and I will be far better. Because I know that I can give much more.
Ajax USA: You are here for three seasons now. The three seasons you've spent at Ajax so far have not been the best years ever for the club. It was a hard, hard period for the club. What are your expectations for the near future? Do you think Ajax can finally start winning prizes now?
Chivu: It's what I feel right now. And we got a big chance to win prizes this year, if we just go for it. I really want to win something with Ajax. I said it, was my dream when I came here to win something. I haven't won anything in Romania, I haven't won anything here, so I think it's the right moment to win something again.
And I think with this team we can go further and we can be again on top. But it's not like you develop a team in one year and after two years you're gonna win the Champions League or someting like that. But with time, if we continue like this, definitely Ajax will be on top again.
Ajax USA: Do you think you've got a future, a long future, with Ajax? Or is that undetermined yet?
Chivu: It's undetermined. You never know what the future will bring you. But at the moment I feel good right here. And as I said, I want to win something. Of course, there are a lot of rumors about me, and I try to not listen to them and I try to not talk about it because right now Ajax is important, and right now I want to win something with Ajax. So I have to stay fully concentrated on what I'm gonna do here and not what I'm gonna do for... I don't know who or what the rumors are.
Ajax USA: There are players that have gone on from Ajax to big, big clubs and have been very unhappy. Does that experience, of other players having that experience, actually make it into the decision-making process? When you're thinking about your future, do you just think about you and where you want to be? Or do you feel like there are lessons to be learned?
Chivu: Of course there are lessons to be learned but sometimes you just have to take a risk, and go for it. But for the moment, I learned a lot in two years in Ajax , and when I came here I was 18 and I knew that if I go to a big club that maybe there would be a possibility to not play over there. But I trust myself, and I knew that I could play in a team like Ajax. Now I feel prepared to play everywhere.
But I'm playing in Ajax, and it's what I'm doing right now and what I want to do best. So I don't think about other clubs, I don't think about the name that I want to go, or where I want to go. When the time will be, I will see what I'm gonna do. But right now I'm here. And I'll do my best.
Ajax USA: If Ajax qualify for a Champions League, that's gonna be your first Champions League with Ajax.
Chivu: Yeah. So for me, okay, so I play in European Cup and UEFA Cup, but I never play in Champions League. So I still have to learn a lot, and I still need experience. But in Holland I feel good and in Ajax I feel good, and in three years I learned a lot, and I develop a lot. I mean I develop like a normal young guy who wants to develop.
Ajax USA: Do you think Koeman has a lot to teach the players at this stage?
Chivu: Not only me and not only some particular player. He can teach the whole team. And he is special with Rud Krol. They've got the experience, and we have to learn a lot from them. But it's just that you are willing to learn. And that's the most important thing. You are willing to develop. And, I am.
Ajax players enjoy a feisty 5v2 game during the morning's training session. [Photo: Ajax USA]
Ajax USA: You have a lot of enthusiasm. I noticed that in training today, and that's got to be very infectious to the rest of the team. I'm sure the coach appreciates it when a player shows up with a lot of energy and a positive attitude, because that affects the people around him. Has Koeman ever given you a pat on the back for having so much high spirits in training?
Chivu: No, I mean, we are young, we are full of energy. And it's very nice to see in training. Especially when you have a hard training like we did today, it was heavy for everybody to run. So, in that (5v2) game you have to come with something extra, to try to help the players to forget about what will come, "Again we have to run." So it's good for only five minutes, you know, to smile and have fun. And I feel it. I was tired as well. But I feel that I have to help them, too. It was a good training. Heavy, but also you try to match the heavy work with fun as well, sometimes. When you're serious, it's serious. But then it's five against two around us, so it was fun, so I had to do it more fun. It was nice.
You know, now it's pressing, as well. We are first, and we have to stay like this until the end of the season, so, we know that games we have to play from now on will be difficult. Not (whether) we play PSV or De Graafshaap or Fortuna Sittard. Every game is the same right now. And beside that, we have to deal with pressure as well. Sometimes you have to have fun and relax and forget about the pressure and forget that we are first and we have to stay there. It's just a game and we have to go for it. So, sometimes me, sometimes other guys try to help to forget about pressure. And today was an example. It was not only me who was full of energy.
Ajax USA: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the games coming up. The last nine games. Do you think --
Chivu: -- nine, ten, eleven, I think. Nine games and the Amstel Cup semi-final and the final. Eleven. (laughs)
Ajax USA: Eleven. Yes. But the away games at Vitesse and PSV in particular. Do you think those are gonna be crucial, decisive?
Chivu: I think from now every game is the same, and we have to look at every game with confidence. And we have to look very seriously at the game on Sunday (against De Graafschap) because it will be difficult.
Ajax USA: But is that really true? Is every game the same? I mean, PSV is a game which Ajax usually loses last few seasons. You've lost a lot of games against PSV. Isn't that something extra?
Chivu: Yeah, it's something extra because now we're in a different position. We are first in the league and we have to continue like that. So, of course (by) the end of the month you will know alot what will happen, and those games are at the end of the month, so they will be special. Special when we play against two teams who are very good and are fighting for the title.
Ajax USA: We gonna... have a word with the coach now. Thank you very much.
Chivu: Okay, thank you.
- Cristian Chivu was interviewed by Jim McGough and Menno Pot.