The city of Milan is no stranger to having players from the Netherlands leave an everlasting impression on its inhabitants. When asked to connect the two, most people think of the Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, who were an integral part of the all-conquering AC Milan side of the late 1980s and early 90s.
People often overlook Servaas “Faas” Wilkes, a player whose single minded determination to become a professional saw him forsake the honour of playing for his country and instead, sign a contract with Internazionale in 1949. Wilkes was a tall, agile and elegant forward who upon signing for the Nerazzurri, became only the fourth Dutch player to play abroad. This made the young man from Rotterdam a pioneer of the game.
Wilkes was the son of a carpenter and looked to be following in his father’s footsteps until he joined his local football club, the Rotterdam based Xerxes, as a youth player in 1940. Wilkes’ talent was such that he broke into the first team at the age of 17, where he remained for nine seasons, scoring 49 goals in just 71 appearances. Wilkes also received a call up to the Netherlands squad in 1946 and, on a remarkable debut against Luxemburg, he scored four goals, followed up two months later with a hat-trick against Belgium.
These goal-scoring exploits attracted the attentions of professional clubs in England, Spain and Italy. After an approach from Charlton Athletic, which was blocked by the Dutch FA (KNVB) on account of laws that meant footballers were solely amateurs in the Netherlands, Wilkes became more determined to make a living from professional football. Thus, while Wilkes’ was on holiday in Italy in the summer of 1949, with much help from a local Dutch restaurant owner, “Faas” signed a contract with Inter.
The Dutch FA were incensed and their then Chairman, Karel Lotsy, immediately imposed a five-year ban on Wilkes on completion of the deal. The move was a blatant attempt to deter other Dutch players from seeking professional contracts, thereby preserving the amateur status of their players and game.
Faas had joined an already impressive looking Inter squad, boasting the likes of Benito Lorenzi, Amedeo Amadei and in particular, the Hungarian Istvan Nyers. The young Dutchman only added to this array of quality, but it was not enough to secure Lo Scudetto, won by perennial contenders Juventus. This was despite the 30 goals scored by Nyers, 20 by Amadei and 17 by Wilkes, an impressive return in his debut season. This helped Inter finish in third place, although the highlight of their season was undoubtedly a memorable 6-5 win over city rivals, AC Milan.
At 27-years-old, Wilkes was in his prime as he entered his second season with the Milan giants. The campaign turned out to be the most fruitful of his career, notching up his highest goal-scoring tally. Enjoying life at the San Siro, Wilkes often hogged the limelight, and at times, his teammates felt he also hogged the ball. Some believed him to be a selfish player, a player who rather than opting for the simple pass, kept the ball and tried to beat three or four defenders. But they say all good strikers are greedy and this individualism made him a crowd favourite. In truth, Faas had the ability to make the complex look simple. The ball stuck to his feet like glue, and he would often emerge from seemingly impossible situations to continue his cavalier charges towards goal. Wilkes finished the 1950-51 season with 23 goals in 38 games. Once again, however, Inter finished runners up in the title race, painfully losing out to Milan by a solitary point.
The constant attention from hard tackling defenders started to leave an impression on the slight frame of Wilkes. Injuries began to build up, including a troublesome knee problem which restricted Faas to just 23 games in his third and final season with the Nerazzurri. While he did manage to find the net seven times, the Serie A title eluded him once again, as Inter finished in third place.
Wilkes stayed in Italy for one more season, joining Torino. Il Toro were still trying to rebuild after the Superga air disaster and gave Faas a starring role. Unfortunately for both parties, the Dutchman had past his peak. The injuries continued to mount and this restricted him to 12 appearances with just the solitary goal scored.
For Wilkes, his Italian adventure was over and in 1953 he moved to Spain to play for Valencia, where he also became a cult hero much like in Milan. During his four seasons in Italy, Wilkes had scored 48 goals in 107 appearances. His style of play made him a firm favourite among the tifosi of Inter and even today, a picture of the flying Dutchman hangs on the walls in the San Siro.
In 1954, the KNVB finally introduced professional football in Holland and Wilkes was welcomed back when he left Valencia to join VVV Venlo. Having served his five-year ban, he also started playing for the national side again, for whom his goal scoring statistics were phenomenal, netting 35 goals in 38 appearances.
Football was primarily viewed as an occupation by Wilkes but it was one in which he excelled. He finally retired from professional football at the age of 40, back at Xerxes where it had all began. While Faas Wilkes enjoyed personal success throughout his career, it was hardly a trophy laden one, with just the solitary Spanish cup. Even then, Faas was denied the chance to play in the final due to a no foreigner policy in the final itself. Indeed, having achieved so much for Dutch football in terms of raising its profile, it is a shame Faas Wilkes’ career was not decorated with more trophies.
In retirement, Wilkes cut all ties with the game. Nevertheless, he left an abiding impression on fans and players alike. The great Johan Cruyff even called Faas his idol, admiring his fast paced dribbling and canny ability to hold on to the ball under pressure, skills upon which Cruyff built his own game. In August 2006, at the age of 82, the Netherland’s first international star passed away quietly in Rotterdam. However, the legacy that Servaas “Faas” Wilkes left behind is indelible, a fact acknowledged by Henk Kesler, the KNVB Director from 2000-2010:
“He [Faas] put our country on the International Football map.”