Lassina Traore: From 'too fat' to Ajax's long-awaited Kluivert successor

The 19-year-old had to overcome weight issues before earning a move to Amsterdam, but he has impressed since arriving in the Dutch capital

“He was too fat.”

Not the words any young footballer wants to hear spoken about themselves, especially when they came from the technical director at one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs.

That, though, was Marc Overmars’ assessment when watching Lassina Traore playing for Ajax Cape Town, the South African sister club of the Eredivisie champions. A forward of the Romelu Lukaku mould with pace, strength and cold-blooded finishing, Overmars felt that weight was the only thing holding back the teenager’s development.

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Ajax, though, were so sure of his potential that they sent a performance coach to Cape Town to work alongside Traore to prepare him for life among professionals. A couple of years on, and Traore is taking his first steps towards becoming the club’s undisputed starting striker.

Famed the world over for nurturing some of the game’s greats, one black mark on Ajax’s academy in recent times has been its failure to produce a No.9 of great repute since Patrick Kluivert’s emergence some 26 years ago. It is hoped that Traore will end that wait.

Having either scored or assisted at a rate of once a game for Jong Ajax following his move to Amsterdam in January 2019, he marked his first start for Erik ten Hag’s side with a goal and an assist in a 6-1 win over ADO Den Haag on December 22.

A month later, he made his second start, this time against lower league side Spakenburg in the KNVB Cup, scoring twice and laying on another assist in a 7-0 win.

He was even trusted to replace the injured Quincy Promes at half-time of the recent victory over PSV. It is unlikely to be his final chance to impress as Ten Hag’s side close in on back-to-back league titles.

The son of a former Burkina Faso women’s football captain and cousin of ex-Chelsea and current Lyon winger Bertrand Traore, the 19-year-old’s footballing education began at the Rahimo football school headed up by Rahim Ouedraogo, who played over 140 times for FC Twente during a career spent mainly in Netherlands.

His talent was obvious, though it was only when spotted by retired former agent Ron Groener – who was spending his downtime travelling across Africa – that Ajax were informed of his potential.

Despite the concerns regarding his weight, he was sent to develop in Cape Town, where it was clear that the lessons he had learned from Ouedraogo meant that he was already ahead of his peers when it came to ability on the ball. He still needed refinement in terms of his tactical awareness and lifestyle, but during his two years with the club they clearly improved, while the puppy fat of his youth was replaced with muscle.

Ajax could not offer him a contract until his 18th birthday, but as soon as he came of age he was flown to Europe and included in the first team’s mid-season training camp, where he impressed a number of his new team-mates as they prepared for a campaign that concluded with a run to the semi-finals of the Champions League and a domestic double.

Having impressed for Jong Ajax, Traore was named on the bench for the fateful second leg of Ajax’s 3-2 defeat to Tottenham in early May before making his debut in the final seconds of their 4-1 win over Utrecht four days later.

He would have to wait over five months for his next first-team appearance as a late substitute against Feyenoord, but he has appeared in each of the club’s last seven matches having become a constant in Ten Hag’s squad.

“With the inside of his foot he can shoot very accurately and powerfully. I am not saying that he can do everything else perfectly, but he does pick things up quickly,” Overmars said of the teenager when speaking to Het Parool.

“He is a happy boy and that is also important. On the way to the top, 50 per cent is determined by quality and the other half is a mental issue.”

Traore does seem to have the right attitude after revealing in a recent interview that he sees his future with Ajax rather than shooting for the moon and calling out one of Europe’s superpowers as a future destination, and in Dusan Tadic, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ryan Babel, he has plenty of experienced heads around him to learn from.

For now, locking down a regular starting berth is his aim, but Traore continues to win every battle he has fought thus far. Ajax look to have unearthed yet another gem.

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