Ajax Amsterdam fall into the elite group of clubs in Europe. Having won 33 Eredivisie titles, 18 KNVB Cups and The Champions League four times, it is no surprise that the greatest club in the Netherlands have arguably the best academy in world football. No other club has produced as many players as Ajax’s academy has in the top five European leagues. With a long and distinguished of past legends like Johan Cruyff, Frank and Ronald de Boer and Frank Rijkaard to present day talents like Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Justin Kluivert, Ajax’s progress towards youth in the grassroots level will always remain as one of the greatest works in the history of football.
Ajax’s Academy is the Best in World Football
Ajax’s Academy is known as De Toekomst – The Future. Situated beside a highway in the Dutch capital, the youth training area spans over 14 hectares and consists of seven main training fields and another separate field for the senior team. Besides the training fields, there is a two-story building which consists of lockers, gyms, a swimming pool and a training facility. Overlooking the training ground, there is a café which serves food for the players after their practice and matches. The organization manages a total of 13 youth teams which feature in several youth leagues in the country. Children join the facility as early as eight and train until they become first-team regulars. Presently, Ajax’s academy holds some 200 youths from all over the country aged from seven to 19.
Culture and Style of Training
Ever since Rinus Michels’ ‘Total Football’ made the world fall in love in the beauty of the game, Ajax’s youth system and its greatest achievements were no longer a secret to the outer world. Adapting the players to a natural formation of 4-3-3, Ajax, over the years, have modified their game plan keeping the core of Total Football intact. They have developed a so-called TIPS model, which stands for Technique, Insight, Personality, and Speed. Personality and speed are innate properties while insight and technique can be developed. Each of the four criteria has ten levels out of which the players are graded initially.
Coaches at the academy always focus on mastering the ball. Their main motive is that if you can master the ball, then you will not have to look at it. Once the ball is omitted, the player can then see the field, where to pass and all. The ultimate prospect of a player to develop and modify into the game is important and not winning. Drills are practised again and again until accuracy is achieved. De Toekomst indulges in a culture of constant improvement and competition in which players either achieve their grades and advance to the next level, or fall out and make a place for new entries. With the passage of time, the academy hardens the mentality to face the bigger world. De Toekomst maintains a detailed dossier on each player from the moment they step into the Ajax system.
Stars Produced and Success Achieved
Ajax Amsterdam had been a reckoning force in European football since the start of the European Cup. They completed a hat-trick of winning the European Cup from 1970-1973. The Lancers achieved their fourth European Cup in 1995, achieving an unimaginable feat. From 1994 to 1996, Ajax, under the guidance of Louis van Gaal, completed an unbeaten run of 52 domestic and 19 Champions League matches. The 1995 Ajax team featured the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Clarence Seedorf, Frank Rijkaard and Edgar Davids, who helped the team to feature in European limelight for quite some time. The feat of winning both the Champions League and the domestic league unbeaten has been a historical event that has remained unmatched to the present day.
The Revival of Youth
The drastic change in European football affected Ajax’s stature to challenge for a top prize again. The commercialisation of domestic leagues led to a huge financial gap between the elite teams of Europe and those a level below them, making it impossible for a team of Ajax’s stature to bounce back.
Moreover, history has seen whenever Ajax has produced a class of talents, they have failed to keep the star-studded team together. Lucrative offers from big clubs have always lured the homegrown players away. Every promising member of the 1995 Champions League winning side left within two to three years when the big teams in Europe came calling. Davids, Seedorf and Kluivert were all seen playing for different European giants. Ajax’s failure to keep their youngsters drifted them further away from the elite clubs of Europe.
After years of plummeting to new lows, Ajax’ youths have finally seen light again. The club recently hosted Real Madrid in a 2-1 loss at Amsterdam in which the youth side was praised and supported wholeheartedly. The Lancers made their first appearance in Champions League knockout stages after 13 years. Four years earlier, Ajax hosted Manchester United in a Europa League Final lead by Kasper Dolberg. That valiant Ajax side lost to the Red Devils 2-0 but they promised to show the future rise. The present squad boasts the likes of de Jong and de Light who have emerged as world-class talents, but the academy has more to offer. Donny van de Beek and Noussair Mazraoui have sealed spots in the first team, while future superstars Carel Eiting and Dani de Wit have been given playing time. The Amsterdam side’s famous academy is already churning out top talents again.
What Makes Ajax Different From the Others?
No discussion on the youth system is ever complete without discussing the likes of Barcelona’s La Masia, Schalke’s Knappenschmiede and the youth systems of Arsenal and Manchester United. Over the years, these academies have produced some of Europe’s top-notch players. However, De Toekomst holds an edge over them all. According to statistics from The International Centre for Sports Studies in Switzerland, Ajax rank at the top of producing academy players who play in Europe’s best leagues. 77 players who were trained at Ajax over the last ten years have gone and played in Europe’s 31 best domestic leagues. This has not been an easy task to achieve.
At Ajax, football is seen as a way of life. Players who come through the ranks are taught to view the sport as an overall development and maturity in life. Winning is not the main aim but to develop and modify the game not only professionally but also within themselves. Players are always encouraged in their spare time to play two-on-two or three-on-three, or four-a-side and five-a-side matches with their friends. That way, when it is a game to them and not a routine, they tend to explore more, developing on their basic instincts.
Nowadays, Ajax fans do not see much European glory in their team’s success, but one thing that the Amsterdam faithful boast off is of the fact that the founding fathers of youth development produce the best youth squads of Europe and some of these youngsters later go on to be legends of the game.