I’m in Holland today, meeting with the man in charge of youth development at Ajax, one of the greatest academy programs in the world. This is where Bergkamp came from, and before him the mighty Johan Cruyff. Before the recent rise of Barcelona the Ajax Academy towered as the pinnacle of youth development.
I’m with Michel Kreek, who runs the the U16’s and U14’s at De Toekomst, the state-of-the-art facility just a few hundred yards from Ajax’s new stadium on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Kreek is considering sending his teams to the World Youth Soccer Championship that GotSoccer is hosting in England next year. It’s a great tournament – designed just for U12’s through U14’s and we’ve already got commitments from Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton, Norwich, Fulham and QPR. I meet with Arsenal on Friday and we’re talking to Chelsea and Manchester United.
But I took the opportunity at Ajax to quiz Michel. A lanky man dressed in an Ajax tracksuit, he walked me through the facility. Ajax pulls in players from 9 years old, albeit it only local players at that age. By U12 they are drawing players from every part of Holland.
It’s an intense 11-month program that starts in August and runs through the end of June. Unlike the UK, everything is competition-based, even the small-sided games the Dutch are famous for. As Kreek puts it, “the kids like to win” and it’s all about making it fun for the players while teaching them at the same time.
Now that’s the big difference. Are we driving the fun out of the game? I’m a big believer in picking the best out of other systems but retaining the unique identity that makes the USA different. Playing high-school is part of an American upbringing. Climbing on the that school bus is probably one of the most important things for a 15-year boy, and we want to take that away from him?
Tomorrow I’m off to Rotterdam to meet with the director of the Feyenoord Academy, and then I go to Brussels to meet with the Anderlecht youth program, another European powerhouse. The Belgians, although not in Euro 2012 are producing players like Thomas Vermaelen at Arsenal, Vincent Kompany of Man City, Dembele at Fulham and Marouane Fellaini at Everton. Also Eden Hazard, supposedly th best young player in Europe and Chelsea’s Lukaku. They too are doing something right. I’ll find out if it includes having fun.