By Eric Beard, writing from Barcelona with nostalgia
A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I embarked on a wonderful little trip to explore the Netherlands for the first time. Amsterdam more specifically. Not knowing what to expect from Europe’s sin city (nor knowing a single word of Dutch, ‘hallo’ aside), we both found ourselves delighted with the kindness of everyone we met despite the near frigid temperatures. We had left the sunny shores of Barcelona, however, we found a love for the Catalan lifestyle, especially when it came to Total Football. To many of the Dutch men and women we talked football with, there was a sense of pride in comparing their club, Ajax, with the Blaugrana. Some still avidly watch their club at the Amsterdam ArenA every weekend, while others have lost the fire for the ‘Joden’ because the complex of modern football has left them with the despair of knowing they’ll never again have a team capable of winning the Champions League, or even as close to as good as the team of the 70s with Cruyff, Krol, and Rensenbrink.
Thanks to our Dutch friend Babette, who is a spirited Ajax club member as well as a sports & media student, we were able to take in the legendary Ajax experience against AZ Alkmaar at the Amsterdam ArenA with 50,000 other fans, while we also saw the football culture of the club everywhere throughout the city. Those four days in Holland inspired me, as the uniqueness of Ajax is something that needs to be appreciated. The club is not consistently playing in the Champions League, nor have they won the Dutch Eredivisie since 2004. Despite this perceived trip in mediocrity, they are still one of the best clubs in the world. Why? Well that is exactly what I will focus on in the first of my 3 part series capturing the Ajax experience.
The future. That’s what the club, for better or for worse, is all about. Ajax is looking towards the future and it always will be. Walking into an Ajax store near Leidseplein square, I looked at the vast array of Ajax scarves. You know those rare moments when something, whether it be a person, a university, a club, or a company, defines itself so precisely with just one phrase? Ajax’s phrase was ‘Where The Legends Are Made.’ I saw it, stopped and paused, simply staring at the truthful essence of that slightly overpriced scarf I probably wouldn’t have bought had I known there were scarfs for 5 euro at the actual stadium.
However, I was caught gazing at the scarf by the Moroccan employee working.
He said, “You like Ajax?”
I responded, “They’re not my team, but they’re something special aren’t they?”
"Oh, they certainly are. Follow me."
The employee took me into this sketchy backroom before I came to see a wall that might as well have been an alter to Ajax. In the middle of the wall there was an Ajax crest, but surrounding the crest were the signatures of Ronaldo, Ruud Gullit, Bergkamp, Suarez, Sneijder, and the list goes on. He told me the players used to come to the Leidseplein square to celebrate after winning a trophy, but now they do it in the Amsterdam ArenA because it’s too dangerous from all the drunk fans. Then he told me the whole Moroccan national team had been at the store a few weeks before. I asked if it was for a friendly, though I couldn’t recollect Holland playing them. Then he proceeded to show me his jersey signed by Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh. ”No, they won their game. So they came here to party.” Of course.
But looking through the names I saw on that wall reminded me Gordon Fleetwood’s recent AFR article trying to mathematically prove that the Ajax team in the 70’s with Cruyff was the best in the world. Ever. Obviously Gordon’s debate sprouted from the constant murmurs that this Barcelona side is the best ever. I don’t care so much for those comparisons, but seeing all these names that had left Ajax, I thought it was important to recognize Ajax for what they do better than anyone else, maybe even Barcelona. And that is consistently create the future stars of football. Appropriately, Ajax’s academy has taken the name De Toekomst (The Future).
Sitting in the Amsterdam ArenA with Babette and my girlfriend the next day, about an hour before kickoff, we began talking about the world class players that have passed through the ranks of this club in recent years. Does Ajax’s reputation deserve to be perceived as second-rate simply because it is located in a country with just over 16 million people in a league that cannot financially match those in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy? Not at all.
If Barcelona have a star coming through La Masia or even Barça B, then that player will never be sold unless there is a truly exorbitant amount of money involved. What if Ajax had the power Barça had to hold on to everyone they produce? How strong would the squad, as a culmination from the past 5, 6, or 7 years be? Here is what Babette came up with:
(bold are still at club, italics are who would be in my personal starting XI. Van der Vaart would be winger in 4-3-3.)
Forwards: Luis Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
Midfielders: Rafael Van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Ryan Babel, Steven Pienaar, Nigel De Jong, Christian Eriksen, Lorenzo Ebecilio
Defenders: Maxwell, Thomas Vermaelen, Cristian Chivu, Zdenek Grygera, John Heitinga, Hedwiges Maduro, Urby Emanuelson, Gregory Van der Wiel, Jan Vertonghen
Goalkeepers: Maarten Stekelenburg
Not to open pandora’s box with countless hypothetical situations, but when Ajax’s squad is put into this sort of perspective, not even some of the best clubs in the world could compete. Ajax’s role in modern football is now as a club that consistently creates the next generation. The future. 200 players, ages 7-19, make up Ajax’s academy. Their youth system, though criticized by many for targeting players as young as 5, is undeniably the most effective in the world.
The system itself, as you can imagine, is all about technique. The little things. As Gregory Van der Wiel put it, “You do things again and again and again, then you repeat it some more times.” Johan Cruyff famously said, ”Don’t run so much. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.”
Currently in Ajax’s first team are 8 players (Stekelenburg, Van der Wiel, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Blind, Anita, De Jong, Eriksen, Ebecilio) who came through the academy. Some played there longer than others. Aras Özbiliz is another talent that’s often included in the squad. The biggest talents coming through the ranks in the academy are Davy Klaassen (center attacking midfielder, U19’s), Sneijder’s little brother Rodney who plays for the Reserves, and the talented but not mentally strong striker Castillion. Others that will likely make the first team in the future are Jody Lukoki (made his debut already) (right winger), Ruben Ligeon (left back), Nicolai Boilesen (defender).
The signs of the academy are everywhere, even in the Amsterdam ArenA itself. Before the match, on the screens highlights of the youth and reserve teams are displayed. At halftime, the academy boys that help with the balls during the match play on a small 5-a-side pitch behind the goal in front of the Ultras, trying all sorts of skills that are applauded by the hundreds cheering them on. Just before the players walk out of the dressing room, one 9, 10, or 11-year-old in the academy juggles as many times as he can in front of the thousands supporting him in attendance. The kid that juggles the most at the end of the season gets to hang out with all of the first team players.
We were lucky enough to see a little 10-year-old Dutch boy juggle 436 times… his first try. Only Ajax.
This piece could not have been created without the invaluable knowledge of the Ajax team and academy from my good friend Babette (follow her on Twitter), who’s passion for Ajax is second to none. I was also inspired by Michael Sokolove’s comprehensive piece in the New York Times on how the Ajax academy functions. Part Two: Matchday at the Amsterdam ArenA. Coming Soon… Please leave your thoughts below.