‘This isn’t Jaap, is it?’
At 7.50pm last Thursday, that was the message that pinged through on our media staff’s WhatsApp group, along with FC Cincinnati’s announcement graphic from Twitter – which welcomed our former manager Jaap Stam to his new role in the MLS.
You’ve seen the picture by now, surely. A bald Dutchman, wearing a tie with Ajax’s crest subtly emblazoned… but not Jaap Stam. Maybe it was the lockdown getting to us, or the surprisingly warm May evenings messing with our minds – but no amount of mental gymnastics would allow us to accept that the man in the picture, next to the words ‘JAAP STAM’, was the man we had worked with for two years at Madejski Stadium.
What we were thinking, others were saying. FC Cincinnati’s mentions were taking a battering on Twitter. Finally, the tweet disappeared… and resurfaced moments later with the self-aware caption: ‘Join us in welcoming our actual new head coach, Jaap Stam.’ Order at last.
Other MLS clubs and fans came piling in with images of other bald celebrities. Mark Strong, Jason Statham, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the animated mascot for ‘Mr Clean’ cleaning products all got a look in. We resisted the temptation to pick out some pics of any of our other bald former managers or players.
In the meantime, we had figured out what had happened, and more importantly, how it had happened. And we had ample sympathy for the situation.
Matchdays are hectic. The week creeps by, and then suddenly the stadium is abuzz with chaos for a few hours, and then the calm settles again. It’s a high-pressured environment for anyone working, where mistakes might be made.
Almost seven years ago, Ajax hosted Heracles Almelo in the Eredivisie at the Amsterdam ArenA. Jaap, who had re-joined Ajax earlier that year as a defensive coach, may well have been in the building, but he wasn’t the person that the telephoto lens was pointing at. That would be Tinus van Teunenbroek, a colleague of his in the Ajax Academy. But sometime between those photos being snapped, and their appearance in the wider world, someone made that error of identification.
Whether it was the agency photographer scrambling to file some photos before the game got underway, or one of their colleagues back at base working on the picture desk, it was accidentally Jaap Stam’s name which was captioned against those images – and it was never corrected.
Before we move on, let’s make it clear: you’ll find nothing here but respect for football photographers. It’s an underappreciated art. With action darting around on every blade of grass, how possibly can they be expected to take sharp, well-framed pictures, capturing the most important action and the emotion, while never resting in fear of missing a key moment, but simultaneously editing those pictures from a laptop at the side of the pitch (in all weather conditions, no less) – and filing them with captions to provide literally hundreds of images to choose from as the game is going on? It’s not witchcraft, it’s just a well-drilled craft undertaken by some consummate professionals.
It’s as simple as that. A small error is made on a photo caption, it isn’t corrected immediately, and so it never gets noticed – football moves on quickly. Three days after these photos were taken, Ajax were due to host Barcelona in the Champions League. Was anyone really going to be picking through every photo with a toothcomb, making sure all the captions were spot on? (Ajax beat Barça 2-1 with ten men, in case you’re interested.)
But fast-forward to seven years after the photo was taken, FC Cincinnati’s media staff were preparing to announce their new manager, and needed a photo for the graphic. A simple brief: smiling, well-lit, not too much branding of another club on show, and gentle bokeh to make the picture easier to crop. What bad luck it was that the designer – who feasibly might not have been at high school by the time Jaap retired as a player in 2007 – should come across this picture, and select it.
An innocent and easily-explained mistake, albeit with a bizarre string of events dating back to 2013. No harm done. Stam laughed it off too: “A lot of people with no hair, in Holland, sometimes they say, ‘There’s Jaap!’ It's a thing that's quite normal.”
We’ve all made worse mistakes, and we’ll make more. We had a trawl through a few photo agencies to see if we could spot any other cases of mistaken identity involving any of our current and former players, to see what other kinds of errors can quite easily occur without an eagle-eye (but with certainly no criticism from us!) - have a scroll through our gallery below and the captions that have been tagged alongside them...