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. 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. 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? 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. 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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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 players train at De Toekomst at any given time, from ages 7 to 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 year-old who began at Ajax when he was 7.
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. 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,plus fans for its home games and still occupies a mythic place in world soccer because of the innovative style it established in the s — a quick-passing, position-shifting offensive attack that became known as Total Football.
They wet their pants. Over time, though, the academy hardens them mentally as well as physically. He shrugged. Now he knows how it feels. I handed it over, and he put down five names, then drew a bracket to their right. 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. 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. In the U. At Ajax, it is clarifying. The Ajax youth academy is not a boarding school. The players all live within a 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.
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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.
The U. Ajax makes mistakes, plenty of them. 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 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 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. They are playing with the wrong tempo, too slow. 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. Through age 12, they train only three times a week and play one game on the weekend. When they are not with us, they play on the streets. They play with their friends. 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. In many practice settings in the U. At the Ajax academy, these exercises — designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball — are the main event. But here it is no-nonsense, and everything is done very hard and fast. To the point and aggressive.
Many people seemed to believe that the sport is still a novelty in the United States , a game that we took up only in the last couple of decades and that is not yet popular or perhaps is even disdained by our best male athletes — an understandable view given the much greater international success of the U. I had lunch one day with Auke Kok, a historian and Dutch soccer journalist, who offered up his own hypothesis.
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. More than three million boys under age 18 play organized soccer in the U.
The American men are certainly improving. Few would be surprised if the U. 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.
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Thanks to a late goal by the U. 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.
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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.
After the U. But what else could he say? The Americans did a good job of backing up and closing ranks, a survival tactic that, along with several heroic saves by the goalkeeper Tim Howard, kept the Dutch from running up six goals or so. That was only one game, of course, but it seemed to bring into focus what I had been observing at the Ajax youth academy, as well as learning about American soccer.
How the U. Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players, ones with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U. In a way, it is a reversal of type.
Americans tend to think of Europeans as collectivists and themselves as individualists. But in sports, it is the opposite. The Europeans build up the assets of individual players.
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