When Sergino Dest took up the pitch for the Round of 16 match at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, he had mixed feelings. Born in Almere, the Netherlands, to a Dutch mother and Surinamese-American father, Dest featured for the United States of America team against the country he was born in.
But that did not deter the marauding right back, who has been slowly making a name for himself in football, having already played for Ajax Amsterdam, FC Barcelona, and AC Milan at only 22 years old.
Dest, a modern full-back, with astonishing speed and an excellent tactical nous, learnt at one of the great football academies in the world, is an important member of the young USA side – the youngest on display at Qatar 2022 – which promises to deliver some excellent performances in the future.
But how did he end up playing for the USA team and not the Netherlands, despite having spent his formative years in the Dutch system? The explanation is quite simple: despite having dual citizenship and the Netherlands being interested in him, the fact that the USA got interested in him when he was just a kid meant the world.
“Of course, it was a tough decision for me when the Dutch men’s national team showed their interest, but I have built up a very good feeling with Team USA over the last couple of years and I strongly believe in the plans and potential of U.S. Soccer,” said Dest.
But Dest’s story is even more surprising when the layers are being peeled out. The 22-year-old right back was not even thinking about the USA, despite his father being a US serviceman, until 2014. It was back then, when he was already 14-years-old, when he visited the country for the first time, in a trip to New York.
The connection between his father’s country and Dest only grew stronger when a former US coach, Dave van der Bergh, who played for Ajax in the 1990s, asked his former club if there are any players with American passports in the prodigious youth system.
Immediately after getting the response, van der Bergh started scouting Dest. In modern football, the full-back position is crucial, with the players featuring on these positions becoming key in both attack and defence.
When Dest was asked about the possibility, he immediately looked interested and made his decision rather quickly. Only a few months later, Dest was featured at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and made the leap to the senior national team only two years later.
But before becoming a right back, Dest was featuring as a right winger, with his trademark speed and technical prowess earning rave reviews at Almere City, the local team where he started playing football. They did not have a right back for a game, due to injuries, and the 14-year-old Dest was asked to deputise.
“All the faults in my career have made me who I am. You have to make mistakes to succeed, and that’s the reason why I’m not scared to do anything or try anything, as if I make a mistake, I will learn from it. If I’m scared, I will never be able to improve or aim for something better,” added Dest.
He played so well, and fit so well into the system, he was never going to leave that position ever again, despite having idolized three Brazilian players as a kid. All three were either wingers or strikers.
“I watched little movies from Ronaldinho, from good soccer players — Robinho, Ronaldo Lima — and I was always practicing them outside of my home. I trained myself really hard, I tried to do every trick and I couldn’t go inside until the trick worked out,” said Dest.
After he became better and better, just before his big move to FC Barcelona, Dest was sounded out again by the Dutch side. He refused, having a sense of commitment to the country that gave him a chance first, as he was in and out of the Ajax side at times.
In 2020, he secured a €21 million transfer to Barcelona, but did not settle too well, as the financial crisis for the Spanish powerhouse meant that he had to go on loan for this season.
He chose another powerhouse, Italian champions AC Milan, where he played five games in the Serie A. Yet he did not lose his confidence or his place in the USA team, with coach Gregg Berhalter, an admirer of Dutch football, where Dest grew, relying on him heavily.
“I was raised in the Netherlands. I love it here. But in life, you have to make difficult decisions. I felt the US was the best option. I had played in their youth teams, and I feel at home there,” said Dest.
And there was Dest in the game against the Netherlands in the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022, playing against the country he was born in and is a citizen of. He did it pretty well, but USA still lost, 1-3, and was eliminated.
However, he will still be there when the USA will co-host the tournament in four-years’ time in 2026. And he will have a point to prove.