Grooming talent the Ajax way

Ajax have struggled to find their feet this term after academy graduates Ryan Babel and Wesley Sneijder both moved on in the summer. But one of the few certainties in football is that the Amsterdam club will soon uncover exciting young gems to replace them with. Forever associated with the Johan Cruyff generation, Ajax's youth program is the stuff of folklore, basking in a mythic aura. It also remains highly effective, as discovered in this exclusive journey into the heart of 'total football'.

The first thing that stands out is the Amsterdam Arena itself, looming large in the distance. An elegant, modern stadium, it is above all imposing, bringing to mind the Greek ships mythological hero Ajax the Great leapt between during the Trojan War. And it does an excellent job of inspiring the young hopefuls at the academy to dream of reaching the top. Without exception, they all share fantasies of breaking into the first XI and following in the footsteps of those responsible for forging the Ajax academy legend over the last 30 years. Football is not just about personal success here: it is a question of philosophy, shared heritage and culture.

The photographs adorning the walls of the academy convey that approach extremely well. Decorating the offices, the bar, the corridors and the games room are images of the club's glorious past and the players who helped shape it: Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Marc Overmars, Danny Blind and Edwin van der Sar. All scaled the heights at Ajax and all began their careers there, making them the best possible advertisement for the club's youth system. Advertisement is the perfect word too, because the Ajax academy has become a brand name without equal in Europe.

Louis van Gaal's 1995 UEFA Champions League winners were particularly instrumental in that respect. With nine starters having graduated from the club's own ranks, they quickly had rival teams clamouring to study the Dutch outfit's methods. But, as academy director since summer 2007, Jan Olde Riekerink denies that Ajax are capable of working miracles. "[The academy] is not a passport to success," he says. "Individual talent is the key."

Whatever forces are at work, Netherlands coach Marco van Basten travelled to last year's FIFA World Cup™ with no fewer than nine players who learned the ropes at Ajax. Among them figured rising stars Sneijder, Babel and Hedwiges Maduro, with Maduro the only one still plying his trade on Arena Boulevard. "Our aim is to bring two players from the academy through to the first team each year," adds Riekerink, who also served as assistant coach at FC Porto and enjoyed a previous eight-year stint with Ajax between 1993 and 2001.

It is a little after 9am on an overcast September morning and the academy's seven training pitches - two of which are artificial - are completely deserted. The only sign of life comes from the grey metallic bunker in front of the entrance gate that serves as both an office and a changing room, where five lads are playing pool on the first floor as they wait to put on their boots. By mid-afternoon, however, the pitches become a real beehive of activity. Thanks to a budget of 4.5 million euros, Ajax have an impressive 240 youth players divided up into 14 different age-groups from seven to 19 years old. They can also boast no fewer than seven youth teams competing in national leagues, and the promising youngsters gain vital insights into the 'house style' from former club luminaries. "There are a lot of old players still involved with the club and that's a good thing," says Riekerink.

A philosophy in four letters
It is an especially good thing at Ajax, where the same philosophy has held sway since the mid-1960s. In formation terms, that translates into the attacking 4-3-3 system they evolved into 'total football', but the Ajax approach is much broader than that. It is a footballing ideology that can be summed up in four letters: T.I.P.S., an acronym for Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed that serves as the guiding principle for the academy's recruitment process. "Our scouting network is made up of 40 volunteers and four part-time employees," explains Riekerink. "We don't travel more than 60km outside of Amsterdam. We believe in our own culture and it's not in our way of thinking to go and find youngsters abroad." That said, the club have none the less spread their net to South Africa and the United States by founding the Ajax Cape Town and Ajax America satellite clubs. Steven Pienaar and Aaron Mokoena both made their way to the Dutch capital after showing up on the radar at these outposts.

"We have a creative football philosophy based on speed and technique. Sometimes we mix the age groups together in training. Individual quality is more important than any system. All the teams under the age of 12 play in a 3-4-3 formation and then they play 4-3-3, but it's flexible. If we have two outstanding strikers we can play in 4-4-2," continues Riekerink, illustrating his point by shifting magnetic figures around the whiteboard in his office.

"We have creative players in every position here and everything comes down to using the ball. There are lots of details that make us unique, such as closing opponents down, being able to play in various positions and moving with the ball. It's how we go about those things that makes the difference." With 22 trainers at his disposal, the former coach of Belgian side KAA Gent is not resting on his laurels either. Keen to take the club forward, he has another area of focus lined up for the near future: anticipation and reading the game, which will mean working on defensive and attacking moves. "It's going to take two years to put this program into place because all the coaches need to be talking the same language," he adds.

In the wake of the Bosman ruling, Ajax's academy has lost its role as the foremost provider of first-team players. The last ten years have also seen other Dutch clubs begin to catch up, but the capital outfit's methods remain unique and are still highly sought-after.

As proof, almost 2,000 young aspirants a year try their luck at the club's three 'talent days'. Only two or three ever make it to the top, with Edgar Davids a notable example, but the desire to receive instruction in the Ajax way is strong. "We don't want to produce robots," says Riederink. "We believe the family environment is important. Here, they eat, study and play, but their homes remain their homes. The youngest players train three times a week and the U-19s six times."

With that, he glances out of his window at the eldest trainees being put through their paces, as the Ajax factory line carries on preparing the next batch of champions.