Ajax’s former goalkeeper Stanley Menzo talks about the pressures he faced as a black player in Dutch football and how it has changed over time.
Stanley Menzo was born in Suriname and came to Amsterdam with his family when he was six years old.
There are instances of racial insults in this article.
Johan Cruyff desired a special goalkeeper in his first managerial job, one that fit his all-around offensive vision for Ajax. Stanley Menzo was the right person for the job.
Menzo has been a member of the Amsterdam club for a while. Cruyff was an understudy and had only played a few games when he took over as manager in 1985.
Menzo joined the first team at the age of 21 under the tutelage of the Dutch great. Cruyff left to Barcelona three years later, but the young goalkeeper remained a key member of the team that won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987 and the European Cup in 1992.
Menzo won nine domestic league and cup trophies in the Netherlands and Belgium over his 16-year football career, and did it with a style that served to redefine what a goalkeeper might be. He was an early example of the’sweeper keeper,’ an additional man who could do more than just keep the opponents out.
Those years at the top, however, were difficult.
Menzo was born in Suriname in 1963 and relocated to the Netherlands at the age of six. Early in his career, he was subjected to racial insults. By the time he was at his pinnacle, it had escalated to a terrifying level of public, regular, and large-scale violence.
There would be monkey chants, racial remarks, and bananas thrown on the pitch in many of the games he played.
“It hurt, it hurt a lot,” Menzo admits today. “It’s difficult to feel alone when half the stadium is insulting you. When I reflect on how I accomplished it – how I played my matches – I can’t comprehend how I achieved it.”
Racism was so common in Dutch football at the time that nearly no one spoke about it, even those who were targeted, according to Menzo. Even though he tried not to be affected by it, he began to doubt himself.
He continues, “We never talked about what was going on because we didn’t know how to cope with it.”
“Some players claimed not to have heard it. I can’t picture it – I always heard it, even if it was only one person. It was normal, and it stayed that way.
“I assumed it was my personality that caused me to feel and hear it, and that I wasn’t physically capable of playing professional football.”
Menzo, on the other hand, demonstrated his strength. He also stood up to his tormentors physically on many occasions.
The first occasion occurred in November of 1987, when he was just 24 years old and very early in his Ajax career. It occurred after he was targeted in yet another away game.
He was carrying a package when he exited the locker room and walked across the field to the team bus. He was approached by a young guy. He inquired whether the package included bananas. Menzo tossed the box on the ground.
“I said, ‘What did you say?’ and he repeated it,” Menzo says.
“I guess I was not myself at the time, and I punched him.”
“The initial sensation was one of relaxation; it was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Abuse was there during the game, and it was present after the game as well. It was now – bang.”
Menzo smacked the guy across the face. With a bleeding nose and a shattered tooth, his tormentor went away.
The whole event was observed by the manager of the opposing club, who backed Menzo when rumors in the press surfaced. That’s how his mother learned about the incident. According to Menzo’s account, if the abusive young guy had shouted that to her, he would have lost more than a tooth.
The authorities made no response, but then again, little or nothing was done to attempt to halt the bigotry directed towards the goalie.
Another banana was tossed in his direction later in his career, while he was playing in Belgium in the 1990s.
Menzo picked it up, peeled it, and bit into it this time, rather than ignoring it like he had done so many times before. The consequence was laughing, which helped to relieve stress.
“It was a positive response,” he adds. “It made me feel wonderful, and it gave the crowd a favorable response.”
However, Menzo feels that some of the response stemmed from the fact that he was older, more well-known, and respected at the time. He now admits that such a response would have been unimaginable when he was younger.
With the Ajax squad of 1992-93, Menzo stands behind a youthful Marc Overmars.
The former Ajax, PSV, and Dutch international goalkeeper has retired after more than two decades on the field.
As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gained fresh worldwide prominence in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, he was working on a book about his life alongside journalist and novelist Mike van Damme.
In terms of how football addresses racism, the difference between the 1980s and 1990s and the current day could not be clearer, according to Menzo. Players express themselves. Campaigns are handled by officials and regulating organizations. Back in his day, he says he “can’t envision” teams walking off the field in protest.
Despite the fact that the situation is far from fixed, Menzo sees progress.
“The BLM talks were interesting to me because I didn’t see black individuals marching against racism; instead, I saw black and white people. And that is the crux of the matter “he declares
“See it and hear it if I feel it as a black person.” As a white person, do you see and hear it? If this is not the case, we have a problem. If that’s the case, let’s work together to fix it.
“We can change things in football, and we can use football to change things.”
In 2021, Menzo was named technical director of the Aruba national team. For the first time in three years, they won a match in June, defeating the Cayman Islands 3-1.
Menzo has taken a long time to realize how far he has come in football. Not just because of the continual abuse he received, but also because he was often preoccupied with his performances, making it difficult for him to appreciate success.
He remembers, “Most of the time I was just noticing the terrible stuff, the goals I couldn’t save.”
“I was too preoccupied with the issues to see the good.”
That emotion persisted until he agreed to work on the book, he recalls. Menzo: The Battle Under the Bar is the title of the film.
“It was a little uncomfortable at first to speak about oneself,” he admits.
“But I grew to appreciate it, and I discovered other aspects of my life and profession that I now enjoy and never did before. You can see that as a player, you’ve done a fantastic job.”
And, as a result of the feedback he’s received since publication, he’s finally come to understand how others see him.
“I had no idea people regarded me that way – as an athlete, a fantastic goalie, and someone who was always battling racism. It made me happy that others thought so highly of me.”
Despite the fact that he retired from football many years ago, Menzo is still active in the sport. It’s a connection that started on the streets of Amsterdam.
Football, which he played on the streets as a kid, had a significant impact on his life and career. A 10-year-old Menzo was out with a ball at his feet while the whole world appeared to be inside watching the 1974 World Cup final, in which the Netherlands lost to West Germany. He’d always played street football as a kid, and he continued to do so after breaking into the Ajax club.
He served as a goalkeeping coach for the Dutch national team from 2004 and 2008, while Marco van Basten was the manager.
He guided FC Volendam to Eredivisie promotion in 2007-08, and he has previously coached in Belgium, South Africa, and China.
He presently serves as the technical director and stand-in coach for the Aruba national team. In June, he led them to their first win in three years, a 3-1 triumph in World Cup qualifying against the Cayman Islands.
It’s all for the love of the game, which has been his life for better or worse.
He believes, “I have to give back to football since football made me the person I am.”