Former Ajacied is the talk of Czech football (but not in a good way)

You’ve come through the ranks of Ajax Amsterdam, bagged 7 in just 10 matches for your national team, became a league’s top scorer, which prompted a promising club with a great financial backing to make you their league’s most expensive transfer. There’s not much that can go wrong, is there? Well, try telling that to Gino van Kessel, who has gone from superstar signing to a reject at Slavia Prague in less than half a year.

Despite the fact that he didn’t make a single competitive appearance for the first team at Ajax, you can argue that Gino van Kessel has been enjoying a pretty successful career. His feats at Copa Amsterdam, the Carribean Cup qualification with Curacao, and his time with Slovakian champions Trenčín have gained him a stamp of a prolific goalscorer. He was voted the biggest fan favorite by the Trenčín fans, and regarded as a star of the league. In July 2016, after his second spell in Slovakia, he moved to the neighbouring Czech Republic to wear the 99 shirt for Slavia Prague.

For context, it is important to understand what Slavia was going through at the moment, and in the past year. “The Sewn Ones” are the oldest side in the Czech Republic, multiple time champions, and the club that introduced legends such as Pepi Bican and František Plánička or modern day notables like Vladimír Šmicer and Pavel Kuka to the world of football. But in recent times, they were struggling both on and off the pitch, narrowly avoiding relegation in the 2014/15 season, and living on the very edge of their financial existence under the ownership of Czech Republic’s former Minister of Transport Aleš Řebíček. It all made a U-turn in autumn of 2015, when Chinese company CEFC bought the club thanks to their Czech representative, former Minister of Defence Jaroslav Tvrdík (yes, Slavia seems to have a thing for ex-ministers) and turned it from a near-bankruptcy club to one of the richest sides in the country.

The next season went surprisingly well for the boys in red and white, as they finished 5th, securing a Europa League qualification spot. The vision of the new owners was clear – strenghten the team with more quality players and attack even higher spots in the table. Players such as Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, a tough as nails Cameroonian centre back turned defensive midfielder, or pacey winger Ruslan Mingazov were brought in, along with the return of Dušan Švento, a Slovak international and arguably a modern day icon of Slavia, as he was a vital part of the team’s last league winning squad. Most of those players came for free, or for a fee that wouldn’t raise eyebrows, but on July 13th, Gino van Kessel was announced as the final signing. Brought in from Trenčín, the Alkmaar native representing Curacao cost 1.1 milion euros, which made him one of the most expensive transfers in the history of the league, and the most expensive player bought from outside of the league (before rivals Sparta smashed that record, buying back Václav Kadlec for 2.7 milion).

Gino made his debut in style. Slavia was battling Levadia Tallin for the spot in the next round of Europa League qualification, and was desperate for a win. They did go on to win that match and their new number 99 got on the scoresheet already. He didn’t score in either of the legs against Rio Ave, but in the league, his goal helped Slavia get a draw with Zlín despite being 2-0 down, and a week later he scored his team’s only goal in another draw with Jihlava. His presence on the wing could have been likened to that of hockey legend Brett Hull – you wouldn’t know about him for the entirety of the match, but then he would just come out of nowhere, and the next thing you see is him celebrating a goal. His playing style wasn’t one you would expect from the league’s top transfer, which prompted the critics and fans to question the decision to bring him in in the first place, but he indeed was getting the job done.

The wake up call was the final round of Europa League qualifiers. Slavia faced Belgian side Anderlecht, and was kicked out of the Europa League thanks to two 3-0 defeats. The chair under Dušan Uhrin junior, Slavia’s coach, started shaking, and the gaffer who was earlier labelled as “unsackable” was facing a breaking point in the fixture against reigning champions Plzeň. Slavia took the lead thanks to captain Jiří Bílek, but went on to concede 3. Van Kessel was a shadow of his Trenčín self, and Uhrin was shown the door not much later. The critique of the Curacao international hit its peak, as journalists and fans alike said that despite possessing respectable pace, he is unable to beat a player in a 1-on-1 situation and struggles with crosses and final passes. I think you will agree all of those should be the strenghts of a quality winger, not his biggest problems.

On September the 5th, coach Jaroslav Šilhavý left Dukla Prague and agreed to sign a contract with Slavia, as the club was 10th, with a great squad far from reaching its potential. Fans, while still a bit sceptical because of the performances of their team to that moment, welcomed Šilhavý, who wore the red and white shirt of the Prague side in his days as a player in the 90s, and has previously coached a league winning side in Liberec. The journalists understandably bombarded him with questions, one of which stood out – What will you do with van Kessel? Šilhavý said he would give him a chance, but would have no problem with benching the 23 year old if he continued his poor run.

Gino got his first chance against Teplice, as he started, but failed to make an impact and was taken off in the 63rd minute for Slavia’s supersub Muris Mešanovič, who scored to help his team get a point. Van Kessel got another chance in a contest against Šilhavý’s former side Liberec, but put on a miserable performance and somehow made more impact while defending his opposition rather than while going forward. In the match that Slavia went on to win, beginning their 6 game (and running) winning streak, he was subbed off at half time.

Beginning with the huge “Prague S” derby with Sparta, van Kessel has been a benchwarmer at best and is yet to play another minute in the league, only receiving an hour of playtime in the cup against second tier side Chrudim and getting a goal and two assists in the next round in a smooth win against third-tier Litoměřicko. Van Kessel’ lowest point so far came before the match against newly promoted Karviná, where he wasn’t even on the bench. “Gino is not in the team for today because we weren’t satisfied with him and few of our other players came back from injury. He was sent to train with the youth team,” Šilhavý said at the day of the match.

Under the new coach, Slavia rose from 10th to 3rd, with only 2 points behind the Mladá Boleslav and Plzeň and has turned into one of the most fun to watch sides. All that while Gino van Kessel, the man who was supposed to be their biggest star, was reduced to being their best paid spectator. Whether he will have the chance to finally bring a piece of his sensational national team form to club football, or whether he will look for another club or maybe a reviving loan spell as soon as this coming January, remains to be seen….

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