A 2010 article in the New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/magazine/06Soccer-t.html) described the Ajax youth academy and told of how they go about creating world-class talent. Ajax takes promising soccer players into the academy at just 7 years old (sometimes scouting kids as young as 5) and then scientifically trains them to become stars that can be sold to the European super clubs. After the 1995 Bosman ruling opened up the European transfer market, Ajax has been unable to compete with wealthier clubs in England, Spain, Italy and Germany and has resorted to becoming a talent factory that specializes in developing players to sell to these same clubs.
The author, Michael Sokolove, spent a lot of time immersing himself in the Ajax youth academy and he describes it as a cold and objective place. David Endt, former manager of the Ajax first team, stated that while everyone at the club understands the realities of the European football landscape and how Ajax fits in, “the real Ajax man is crying inside.” The operation is run strictly as a business with club officials stating that sales of young Dutch talent is what allows them to keep the club operating. Thus, the players are treated as assets and dealt with incredibly strategically. Unfortunately, though, the club has had little success in international competitions, as they struggle to retain their young talent with most of their players seeking bigger contracts and bigger stages once they get discovered.
Tomorrow, Ajax will face Real Madrid in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. Their lineup will feature young Dutch stars such as Frenkie de Jong (21) and captain Matthjis de Ligt (19). But while advancing to the Champion’s League Round of 16 for the first time since 2006 may seem like a positive sign for the state of Ajax football, a closer examination reveals that things still seem to be largely the same as when the article was written in 2010.
De Jong, a talented midfielder, was sold to Barcelona in January for a rumored 75 million Euros and will move to Barcelona over the summer. De Jong, who grew up an hour outside of Amsterdam, referred to Barcelona as the club of his dreams. De Ligt, already the captain of Ajax at just 19 years old, seems to be headed out of Ajax in the near future, as well. While he has refused any talk of where he might be headed next, he has been rumored to be on the move to Barcelona, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City, some of the richest clubs in Europe. And 19-year-old winger Justin Kluivert left Ajax for AS Roma for 19 million euros in 2018.
But while the current system may not allow for the rejuvenation of Ajax, it could be a perfect storm for the Dutch national team. Ajax’s financial future depends on their ability to create and sell some of the top talent in Europe. The NYT Magazine article highlights their obsession for creating future stars. Their youth teams are focused on developing individuals, rather than on winning games. Endt stated “we would rather polish one or two jewels than win games at the youth levels.” This style of treating players as investments rather than teaching them to contribute to the team as they try to win games is counter to the way sports talent is developed in America.
Sokolove remarked that the “American approach is the more democratic view of sport” where the development and goals of “each member of the team are equally valid.” And while this may be more tasteful to Americans, it has hurt the development of American soccer. Rather than focus on producing top talent, the best American youth are stuck in community leagues and largely kept away from professional clubs invested in developing them into professional soccer players.
However this has somewhat changed in recent years, with some of America’s top prospects getting into academies resembling Ajax earlier and never considering playing in college. Tyler Adams (20) recently moved from the New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig in January without first playing in college. And Weston McKennie (20) and Christian Pulisic (20) will both feature in the Champions League Round of 16 for German clubs despite the fact that they should be sophomores in college. McKennie at one point signed a Letter of Intent to play for the University of Virginia, but ultimately decided to turn pro without ever attending college. All three young players have played for the United States senior team and hope to serve as examples for young Americans trying to develop into soccer stars.
But still no one has mastered the science of developing talent like Ajax. At their academies, they have developed systems for getting players the best type of practice, focusing on maximizing “touches” of the ball rather than games and tracking metrics such as body fat on players as young as 14. The Ajax academies are producing top talent, and while it likely won’t help Ajax return to greatness, maybe it can allow the Dutch national team to achieve success on the world stage. It would just be ironic if the commercialization of the game and removal of any romanticism from the development of stars becomes the driving force in the comeback of the Brilliant Orange football.