adidas safety trainers How a Soccer Star Is Made
The youth academy of the famed dutch soccer club Ajax is grandiosely called De Toekomst The Future. Set down beside a highway in an unprepossessing district of Amsterdam, it consists of eight well kept playing fields and a two story building that houses locker rooms, classrooms, workout facilities and offices for coaches and sports scientists. In an airy cafe and bar, players are served meals and visitors can have a glass of beer or a cappuccino while looking out over the training grounds. Everything about the academy, from the amenities to the pedigree of the coaches several of them former players for the powerful Dutch national team signifies quality. Ajax once fielded one of the top professional teams in Europe. With the increasing globalization of the sport, which has driven the best players to richer leagues in England, Germany, Italy and Spain, the club has become a different kind of enterprise a talent factory. It manufactures players and then sells them, often for immense fees, on the world market. “All modern ideas on how to develop youngsters begin with Ajax,” Huw Jennings, an architect of the English youth development system, told me. “They are the founding fathers.”
In America, with its wide open spaces and wide open possibilities, we celebrate the “self made athlete,” honor effort and luck and let children seek their own course for as long as they can even when that means living with dreams that are unattainable and always were. The Dutch live in a cramped, soggy nation made possible only because they mastered the art of redirecting water. They 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 with a characteristic lack of sentiment or illusion.
The first time I visited De Toekomst happened to coincide with the arrival of 21 new players 7 and 8 year olds, mainly, all from Amsterdam and its vicinity who were spotted by scouts and identified as possible future professionals. As I came upon them, they were competing in a series of four on four games on a small, artificial turf field with a wall around it, like a hockey rink, so that balls heading out of bounds bounced right back into play. It was late November and cold, with a biting wind howling off the North Sea, but the boys skittered about in only their lightweight jerseys and baggy shorts. Their shots on goal were taken with surprising force, which kept the coaches who were serving as goalkeepers flinching and shielding themselves in self defense. The whole scene had a speeded up, almost cartoonish feel to it, but I certainly didn’t see anyone laughing.
After a series of these auditions, some players would be formally enrolled in the Ajax (pronounced EYE ox) academy. A group of men standing near me looked on intently, clutching rosters that matched the players with their numbers. One man, Ronald de Jong, said: “I am never looking for a result for example, which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. 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? I think these things are good at predicting how he’ll be when he is older.”
Like other professional clubs in Europe and around the world, Ajax operates something similar to a big league baseball team’s minor league system but one that reaches into early childhood. De Jong, a solidly built former amateur player, is one of some 60 volunteer scouts who fan out on weekends to watch games involving local amateur clubs. (He works during the week as a prison warden.) His territory includes the area between The Hague and Haarlem “the flower district, which is also a very good hunting ground for players” is how he described it. He’ll observe a prospect for months or even years, and players he recommends will also be watched by one of the club’s paid scouts, a coach and sometimes the director of the Ajax youth academy. But for some families, the first time they realize their boys are under serious consideration is when a letter arrives from Ajax requesting that they bring their sons in for a closer look, an invitation that is almost never declined. To comprehend the impact of a summons from Ajax, imagine a baseball crazed kid from, say, North Jersey arriving home from school one day to learn that he has been asked to come to Yankee Stadium to perform for the team brass.
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One player there was de Jong’s discovery, an 8 year old who, he said, had “talent that is off the charts.” But if this boy were to be accepted into the academy, it would mean he had completed just the first of a succession of relentless challenges. Ajax puts young players into a competitive caldron, a culture of constant improvement in which they either survive and advance or are discarded. It is not what most would regard as a child friendly environment, but it is one that sorts out the real prodigies those capable of playing at an elite international level from the merely gifted.
About 200 players train at De Toekomst at any given time, from ages 7 to 19. (All are male; Ajax has no girls’ program.) Every year, some in each age group are told they cannot return the following year they are said to have been “sent away” and new prospects are enrolled in their place. And it is not just the children whose performances are assessed. Just before my second trip to Amsterdam in March, several longtime coaches were informed that they had not measured up and would be let go. One of them was the coach of a boy I had been following, Dylan Donaten Nieuwenhuys, a slightly built, soft featured 15 year old who began at Ajax when he was 7.
Dylan’s father, Urvin Rooi, served as a sort of guide for me. Gregarious and opinionated, he introduced me to other parents, made sure I came inside for hot drinks at the cafe and even gave me lifts on his scooter from the training grounds back to the transit station. He was particularly useful in translating a culture that was nothing like I had ever seen in many years of reporting on American sports. When I observed that for all the seriousness of purpose at De Toekomst, I was surprised that the players did not practice more hours or play more games, Rooi said: “Of course, because they do not want to do anything to injure them or wear them out. They’re capital. And what is the first thing a businessman does? He protects his capital.”
When the boys start at the youth academy, Rooi said, they are attached to the ideal of Ajax, whose senior team packs in 50,000 plus fans for its home games and still occupies a mythic place in world soccer because of the innovative style it established in the 1960s a quick passing, position shifting offensive attack that became known as Total Football. “The little boys drink their tea out of Ajax cups,” he said. “They sleep in Ajax pajamas under Ajax blankets.” As spring approaches, he continued, they get nervous about whether they will be permitted to stay for another year. “This is when they sometimes start to get bad school grades. They don’t sleep. They wet their pants.”
Over time, though, the academy hardens them mentally as well as physically. I asked Dylan how he felt about his coach’s being fired. He shrugged. “The football world is a hard world,” he replied. “He has made the decision to send boys away. Now he knows how it feels.”
LATE ONE AFTERNOON in the cafe at De Toekomst, I was talking with a coach, Patrick Landru, who works with the academy’s youngest age groups, when he asked if he could take my writing pad for a moment. I handed it over, and he put down five names, then drew a bracket to their right. Outside the bracket, he wrote, “80 million euros.” The names represented five active “Ajax educated” players, as he called them, all of whom entered the academy as children, made it through without being sent away and emerged as world class players. Eighty million euros (or even more) is what Ajax got in return for selling the rights to the players to other professional clubs. Once a team pays this one time transfer fee, it then negotiates a new, often very large, contract with the player.
Wesley Sneijder, the first name on the list and probably the most accomplished young Dutch player at the moment, started at the academy when he was 7. At 23, Real Madrid acquired him for 27 million euros. (He now stars for Inter Milan, the current Italian champion and the winner of this year’s Champion’s League tournament, Europe’s highest club competition.) The other four players named on my pad were, like Sneijder, highly paid pros for clubs outside the Netherlands and prominent members of the Dutch national team that will compete in the World Cup beginning this week in South Africa.
An emerging national team star, Gregory van der Wiel, was not among the names on the list, because he still plays for Ajax, but it is widely assumed that he will be the next big sale. A heavily tattooed rap aficionado who likes to spend his downtime in Miami’s South Beach, van der Wiel, now 22, was sent away from Ajax at 14 because of a poor attitude “I was an angry little boy who had not yet learned to listen,” he told me then was invited back after spending three years in the academy of another Dutch pro club, now defunct, which he recalls as having had inferior facilities, coaching and even uniforms. I asked Martin Jol, the coach of Ajax’s first team, if it was difficult for him to nurture young players knowing he would lose them just as their talent blossomed. “I think that is the purpose of Ajax, to develop players and bring them up to the first team as young as possible,” he answered. At Ajax, it is clarifying. With the stakes so high so much invested and the potential for so much in return De Toekomst is a laboratory for turning young boys into high impact performers in the world’s most popular game.
The Ajax youth academy is not a boarding school. The players all live within a 35 mile radius of Amsterdam (some of them have moved into the area to attend the academy). Ajax operates a fleet of 20 buses to pick up the boys halfway through their school day and employs 15 teachers to tutor them when they arrive. Parents pay nothing except a nominal insurance fee of 12 euros a year, and the club covers the rest salaries for 24 coaches, travel to tournaments, uniforms and gear for the players and all other costs associated with running a vast facility. Promising young players outside the Ajax catchment area usually attend academies run by other Dutch professional clubs, where the training is also free, as it is in much of the rest of the soccer playing world for youths with pro potential. It sends the wrong boys away, and some of them become stars elsewhere with no compensation returning to the club. As a production line, it is grossly inefficient; only a small percentage of its youngsters become elite players. But the club does not throw money after pure fantasy, encouraging visions of pro careers that never have a chance of materializing for children who do not have the foundational talent to reach such goals. The club decides which boys have potential “Please note,” its Web site advises, “Ajax’s youth academy cannot accept individual external applications” and then exposes them to scientific training and constant pressure.
The director of the Ajax youth academy is Jan Olde Riekerink, an intense man with piercing blue eyes who spends much of his day walking from field to field, observing. He usually stands in the background, out of sight, before coming forward to urge better effort or correct some fine point of technique. “He is always watching, like a spy,” Urvin Rooi told me.
One Sunday in March, I was on the sideline of a game Ajax’s 15 year olds matched up against the youth academy of another Dutch professional club when I noticed Riekerink behind me. He was by himself, bundled into his parka and writing in a small notebook. With the Ajax boys up two goals and dominating the action, I told him I was impressed by their skill. (I was always impressed by the quality of play at De Toekomst.) “Really?” he responded. “To me this is a disaster. They are playing with the wrong tempo, too slow.”
During training sessions at Ajax, I rarely heard the boys’ loud voices or laughter or much of anything besides the thump of the ball and the instruction of coaches. It could seem grim, more like the grinding atmosphere of training for an individual sport tennis, golf, gymnastics than what you would expect in a typically boisterous team setting. But one element of the academy’s success is that the boys are not overplayed, so the hours at De Toekomst are all business. Through age 12, they train only three times a week and play one game on the weekend. “For the young ones, we think that’s enough,” Riekerink said when we talked in his office one day. “They have a private life, a family life. We don’t want to take that from them. When they are not with us, they play on the streets. They play with their friends. Sometimes that’s more important. They have the ball at their feet without anyone telling them what to do.”
By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. In all age groups, training largely consists of small sided games and drills in which players line up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range. At the Ajax academy, these exercises designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball are the main event. “You see this a lot of places,” a coach from a pro club in Norway, who was observing at Ajax, said to me. “Every program wants to maximize touches. But here it is no nonsense, and everything is done very hard and fast. It’s the Dutch style. To the point and aggressive.”
Gregory van der Wiel’s description of the detail oriented routine at De Toekomst struck me as dead on: “You do things again and again and again, then you repeat it some more times.”
I HEARD A LOT OF misconceptions about American soccer in the course of reporting this story. women’s teams. I had lunch one day with Auke Kok, a historian and Dutch soccer journalist, who offered up his own hypothesis. He talked of the “brute force” of American football as opposed to the elegance and flair of great international soccer. “I’ve always wondered if our football is too stylish, too feminine,” he said. “Am I right that it’s too girlish for Americans?”
I told him that I was pretty sure that that is not the case. But it is no surprise that the rest of the world might be flummoxed and come up with some offbeat theories trying to explain why a nation as populous, prosperous and sports loving as the United States still does not play at the level of the true superpowers of soccer. The American men are certainly improving. qualified with relative ease to be among the 32 teams competing in the World Cup finals in South Africa, starting June 12 against England. emerged from group play into the second round. But it would be a shocking, seismic upset if the Americans somehow leapt past traditional powers like Germany, Italy or Argentina to say nothing of the favorites Brazil and Spain to capture the championship.
The other nation that shows up on any list of World Cup favorites is the Netherlands, a perennial contender widely considered to be the best team never to win the championship. Drawn from a nation of fewer than 17 million, with a core of stars who trained at Ajax, the Dutch national team plays in the Total Football tradition that relies on players who know what they want to do with the ball before it reaches them and can move it on without stopping it. They abhor the cloying defensive tactics associated with the Italians and the boot and chase way the English played for years, and it has been observed that they sometimes appear more intensely interested in the artfulness of a match than in the result.
The Dutch style (indistinguishable from the Ajax style) even has its own philosopher king Johan Cruyff, an Ajax star in the 1970s, considered just one step down from Pel in the pantheon of playing greats, who can sound like a more erudite Yogi Berra. “Don’t run so much,” he once said, meaning that players often cover lots of ground but to no effect. national team play the Dutch in a “friendly,” a pre World Cup tuneup and test. The Dutch zipped it from player to player and from one side of the field to the other while the Americans ran and ran, chasing the ball but rarely gaining control. When the Americans did get the ball, their passes too often flew beyond reach or directly out of bounds.
Other nations and professional clubs around the world play in a manner similar to the Dutch including, not coincidentally, Barcelona, one of the most consistently successful clubs in Europe, and where Cruyff played after leaving Ajax and then coached for eight seasons. What this type of play demands is the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizardlike ability to control the ball with either foot, any part of the foot, and work it toward the goal through cramped spaces and barely perceptible lanes.