The youth academy of the Dutch soccer club Ajax is called De Toekomst — The Future. In a nondescript part of Amsterdam, it has eight well-kept playing fields and a two-storey building. But everything about the academy, from the amenities to the pedigree of the coaches — many ex-players for the powerful the Netherlands national team — signifies quality.
Ajax was once one of the top professional football teams in Europe. The globalization of the sport has driven the best players to richer leagues in England and Spain. So the club has become a different enterprise — a talent factory. It manufactures players and then sells them on the world market. “All modern ideas on how to develop youngsters begin with Ajax,” Huw Jennings, architect of the English football youth-development system, says.
The Dutch are engineers with creative souls, experts at systems, infrastructure and putting scant resources to their best use. The construction of soccer players is another problem to be solved, and it’s one they undertake without sentiment or illusion.
After a series of auditions, young players are formally enrolled in the Ajax academy. When the new batch arrives, a group of men stand by matching players with their numbers. One of the academy’s 60 volunteer scouts, Ronald de Jong, says: “I am never looking for which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest. I want to notice how a boy runs. Is he on his forefeet, running lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he seem that he is really loving the game?”
All European clubs operate youth programme — but Ajax reaches into early childhood. De Jong and others will observe a prospect for months or years. Ajax puts young players into a culture of constant improvement and fierce competition. It is not child-friendly, but it sorts out the real prodigies from the merely gifted.
About 200 boys train at De Toekomst at any given time, ages 7 to 19. Every year, some in each age group are “sent away” and new prospects are enrolled. Even coaches are regularly dismissed.
Ajax makes mistakes. It sends the wrong boys away, ones who become stars later. As a production line it is grossly inefficient: only one or two of its youngsters each year become elite players.
Boys are not overplayed. Through age 12, they train three times a week and play one weekend game. Explains academy director Jan Olde Riekerink, “They have a private life, a family life. We don’t want to take that from them.” By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week.
Training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line up, move quickly and kick the ball hard to each other at close range. These exercises — designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball — are the main event. Dieticians work to ensure that by 17 a boy has only 12 per cent body fat. Trainers make them sprint but focus on the first 5 and 10 meters. “That’s football distance,” said one. “It’s an acceleration that occurs multiple times a game.
De Toekomst has no romantic view of sport. The need to sell players — just to keep the club going and to bring money in to help pay the salaries of players on the first team — is well understood but regretted. “We sold Wesley Sneijder for a ridiculous amount of money,” said chief physiologist Olav Versloot. “We can go on for years based on what he was sold for.”
Based on methods pioneered by Ajax, top clubs in Europe today scout young kids and enroll them in their academies. It is estimated 10,000 are being trained by clubs in England alone.
There are two ways to become a world-class soccer player. One is to spend hours and hours in parks, streets and imperfect surfaces that can give a competitor an edge on groomed fields. This is the Brazilian and African way.
The other way is the Ajax method. Scientific training. Attention to detail. Time spent touching the ball rather than playing a mindless number of organized games.
De Jong went scouting. At the playing field, his target, Délano van der Heyden, was small even for a 5-year-old. The ball at his feet came up almost to his knees. He was “playing up,” competing against boys as old as 9. But when the game started, he was exactly as advertised: remarkable. Délano kept up with the other boys. He could kick with either foot. He could receive the ball with his back to his offensive end and turn, with the ball in his control, and head toward the goal.
De Jong said excitedly, “You see, they will try to physically dominate him, but he will always seek a football solution. He always has a plan.” Délano weaved through three bigger boys and shot just wide of the goal: “Unbelievable! At this age, I’ve never seen a player like this!”
Even if Délano turned out to be a prodigy, it would be two years before he could enter De Toekomst, a dozen years before he could play for Ajax. But he was worth the time and effort because one day he might be sold to Chelsea or Real Madrid millions.