School of thought

What makes Ajax so good? It seems to have a lot to do with what they teach their under 12s, as John Perlman reports

On the last Sunday in April, Ajax fans thronged up the Middenweg that runs through Amsterdam’s eastern suburbs and covered their beloved old De Meer Stadium in red and white for the very last time. The players responded to the occasion – it’s a habit they have – and hammered Willem II of Tilburg 5-1 to secure a 26th league title, Ajax’s third in succession.

De Meer has been the home of AFC Ajax for the past 62 years. If the San Siro is an Armani suit then De Meer, with its 20,000 seats and a club shop run from a Portakabin, is a snug-fitting worn-soft leather jacket. Since Ajax are currently club champions of the world, it’s evident that appearances still only count for so much where football is concerned.

Home for Ajax next season will be the Amsterdam Arena, a very different world of elevators and corporate skyboxes, with a retractable roof that can cover the 50,000 people inside within 20 minutes. The Arena will be used for a wide range of events – U2 probably stand a better chance of playing there than Ireland – but football is still the thing, and the grand opening on 14th August will feature Ajax against Milan.

Ronald de Boer has seen the stadium rise slowly skywards – the drive from his home to De Meer takes him past the site every day. He believes the move, which signals an era of greater prestige and wealth, has come not a minute too soon. Taken into the club’s youth programme at 13, he has spent the last 12 years at Ajax and would love to stay, but the lira has its lure and the peseta its pull. “The teams in Italy and Spain can give so much money to the players now, four million guilders (roughly £1.6 million) compared to one million (£400,000),” he says. “If Ajax can ease that gap a little bit, you can say I want to stay at Ajax because they play beautiful football.”

The move to a setting more fitting of champions, and the increased incomes that will follow, may be enough to keep some players of that beautiful football at Ajax, but not all will resist a move to Milan or Madrid. Dutch internationals Edgar Davids and Michael Reiziger are out of contract at the end of this season and on their way to AC; Patrick Kluivert, the brilliant Finn Jari Litmanen, Winston Bogarde and others come onto the market a year later.

After the Bosman judgment, Ajax could lose the lot without much in return. Even players who have signed long contracts, like wide player Pieter Hoekstra who signed until 2002, can, under Dutch law, buy their way out for no more than six months’ wages. The Dutch phrase for the judgment is het Bosman-arrest, but while there is dismay at the prospect of losing players like Kluivert who Ajax have raised from knee-high, the men who run the club’s world-renowned youth training programme insist that future development will not be arrested. “Our policy is to keep our top players,” says Co Adriaanse, director of youth development at Ajax.

Errol Abrahams, who runs the extensive educational support system that Ajax provides for its young players – “one boy even did an exam while flying to a tournament in Mexico” – believes that while discipline is the skeleton of the Ajax system, sensitivity is its flesh and blood. “When we all went to Vienna for the European Cup Final, the man who cuts the grass was there and stayed in the same hotel as the club chairman,” Abrahams says. “At Ajax you are given the idea that even the small part you are playing is important.”

Ronald de Boer, who comes from a small village called Groote Broek, highlights a quite different element. “In Amsterdam,” he says, “they are just a little bit arrogant.” That’s a quality that the club actively seek out. Twice a year, Ajax hold ‘talent days’ that attract some 1,500 boys aged 7-12 in the hope of attracting what some coaches call “the street footballers”. From that, about 30 youngsters are taken into the fold.

What makes Ajax work, it seems, is a many-layered mix of experience and discipline, kindness and rigour, collective effort (“Ajax hasn’t the best eleven players in the world, but they are playing together as a team,” Adriaanse says) and supreme self-confidence – all of it practised in an atmosphere that often feels more like a family gathering than a football club. Can that survive unchanged in the high-powered opulence of a new setting and in the increasingly ruthless context of the European game?

Speaking recently to Dutch magazine Voetbal International, Van Os said relations with players had become “harder, more businesslike”. He said in negotiations there had developed “a definite distance, a hardening of the employer-worker relationship”. That hasn’t filtered down to youth level, Ajax coaches say, but contracts at 16 will surely mean young players getting involved with agents sooner rather than later – when I visited the club, a couple of youth team teenagers said they wanted to speak to their agents first before we could take their pictures.

But at Ajax, they say, everything in their football education is about learning how to solve difficult problems, on the field and off. That’s stunningly evident one steely grey Sunday morning, made icier by the cold wind whipping off the little canals around De Meer. The Ajax under-12s are up against an under-15 team from Alkmaar, boys of 10 and 11 against 14-year-olds. Ajax teams regularly play against older boys and some also move up within the Ajax system. “If a player is too good for his own group and he’s not learning any more he has to play in an older age group,” Adriaanse says.

Every team at Ajax plays in the identical system – three at the back, four in a diamond-shaped midfield, two wingers and a central striker. And even the youngest team of seven-year-olds are expected to adopt the same attacking style, fast quick-passing football going forward, built on a platform of patient possession play further back.

It sometimes takes ages for young boys to work the ball out from near their own goal, and at the start the Ajax boys try to pass their way out of trouble, get muscled aside and concede a goal. “It can be a little bit risky sticking to the style,” says Adriaanse. “But we see that as part of the learning process. Even if we were one nil down we would never say just kick that ball.”

Then 25 minutes of quite extraordinary football follow. Ajax win a free-kick 40 yards out and a youngster makes a brilliant dash from deep, throws the marking and lobs the keeper. The physical pressure on the boys is great, but they stand up in the tackle, just about match their opponents for pace and dominate play with fast one-touch football. A second goal is set up by six sweet passes in succession. There is almost a third. A free kick ten metres from the touchline is swerved goalwards and hits the crossbar. Ajax have a system for evaluating players which they call TIPS – Technique, Intelligence, Personality, Speed. One of the things on the Personality checklist, alongside self-confidence, charisma and creativity, is “audacity”.

One minute after the restart Alkmaar equalize and gradually the physical odds become too much, Adriaanse watches from the touchline with the club’s chief scout, Ton Pronk, but neither look too bothered when Ajax lose 5-2.The following day, the team’s coach Jan Olde Riekerink starts a new week by going back to basics, getting the boys to work in tight spaces in closely fought four-a-side games. Coach Jan Olde Riekerink says there was some disappointment at losing 5-2 on Sunday, but “they learn more in these games than in games against weaker opponents”, he says.“In the first half they learned to play the Ajax system under a lot of pressure from the opponent. In the second half they learned about that old saying: ‘He who is not strong must be smart’.”

That may be true but in European football at the moment, the cards keep getting stacked increasingly in favour of the strong, and Ajax’s move to the Amsterdam Arena is a prudent recognition of that fact. If Ajax can stay smart while doing that, the rich traditions built up in 62 years at De Meer should survive and prosper.

From WSC 112 June 1996. What was happening this month