European Football - Feyenoord rival Ajax in Dutch academy stakes

Ajax once set the gold standard for youth development but, now their methods have been copied around the world, the four-times European champions do not even lead the way in their own country.


Arch-rivals Feyenoord are setting the pace these days and attracting the cream of fledgling Dutch talent, crucially keeping them in their own team.

Forty-eight percent of Feyenoord's players this season are home-grown, the highest proportion in the league, while the figure at their rivals from Amsterdam is 34 percent.

NAC Breda are second on the list with 38 percent but Heracles Almelo fare the worst with none of their 23 players having come through the academy.

The International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) conducted a survey of Europe's most competitive 31 leagues last year and found 69 players had been coached by Ajax, the highest amount across the continent, but most of the players have left the club.

Ajax's most recent Champions League triumph, under coach Louis van Gaal in 1995, included seven youth products - an usually high proportion at the time.

Since then the club have more often taken the buying option rather than allowing young players the chance to adjust to senior soccer, with many having to prove themselves elsewhere.

"All modern ideas on how to develop youngsters begin with Ajax," said Huw Jennings, an architect of the English youth-development system. "They are the founding fathers."

The club put young players in a competitive cauldron, a culture of constant improvement where they either survive and advance or are discarded.

It is not a child-friendly environment and sorts out the real prodigies from the merely gifted but in the first decade of the millennium only Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart really broke through from the Ajax academy.

Some critics suggested their system had become too cold-blooded.

"I feel like they've lost some of the spirit of the place and what made them great," said former U.S. youth coach John Hackworth.

"These heroes they create now go on to stardom so quickly somewhere else."


The diminishing returns from the Ajax youth department was one of the reasons Dutch great Johan Cruyff began his 'velvet' revolution in 2011, a philosophy that changed the club's academy.

With Wim Jonk in charge of the youngsters, the club now focus on individual training. It will take years, though, to make up the lost ground and bring the club back to the top of European football which they dominated in the early 1970s.

"Winning is just one aspect of the game. There is much more that needs to be improved," said Cruyff, who now coaches Catalonia.

"When the youth teams focus on results it is the physically strong players who draw more attention but there is much more that needs attention.

"You need to train individually with a coach who can make you better. That should be the objective."

Ronald de Jong, an Ajax scout, explained the way he works at the club.

"I never look for a result, for example which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest," he told Michael Sokolove in the New York Times. "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 he is really loving the game?

"I think these things are good at predicting how he'll be when he is older," added De Jong.

Every top-flight Dutch club has its own youth programme but the youngsters always need someone willing to give their talents an opportunity in the first team.

Leading coaches such as Bert van Marwijk, Martin Jol, Dick Advocaat and Steve McClaren have preferred experienced players.

Marco van Basten, who began his glittering senior career at Ajax, splashed out 30 million euros ($38.85 million) on signings when he took over as coach in 2008.


The Netherlands youth programme has been successful over the last decade, with the Under-21s winning the European Championship in 2006 and 2007 and the Under-17s landing back-to-back titles in the equivalent competition.

Feyenoord have been forced by financial difficulties to focus on youngsters and this season they are battling for their first championship since 1999 with seven players aged between 18 and 23 having come through the academy.

In the 1990s left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst broke through from the club's youth set-up before building an impressive international career.

Netherlands striker Robin van Persie also came through Feyenoord's academy before moving on to Arsenal and then Manchester United.

"We try to bring players into our youth department before they are 15 because then you can really teach them," said Stanley Brard, head of the club's youth academy.

"We focus on players as individuals but besides that we try to create a core of six or seven players in each team who stay together throughout the youth programme."

The main target is to deliver two players each season to Feyenoord's first team.

Eighteen-year-old midfielder Tonny Vilhena has not just broken into the senior side, he has also been called up to the Netherlands squad.

Two years ago three Under-21 internationals - Georginio Wijnaldum, Leroy Fer and Luc Castagnois - were sold by Feyenoord for a combined 14 million euros.

($1 = 0.7722 euros)

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