Leafing through an explanation of the philosophy employed at the Ajax academy, somewhere between the part about making sure their teenage talents don’t over-train and the stuff about all exercises involving the ball, there is the following quote.
“When they are not training, young academy prospects should play on the street with their friends. This can be crucial to a player’s development both as a person and a football player. Under these conditions, they can play with no one telling them what to do and they can be totally free. It is this very freedom that enhances and encourages their creativity.”
They want them to play street football. Not just for the skills they can hone in that environment but because it will help them develop as human beings too. This is the Ajax way and, well, their record would suggest they know something about how to produce some of the world’s finest footballers. Following their recent heroics against Manchester City in the Champions’ League, the Dutch club, the home of total football, has been back in the spotlight. Much has been justifiably made of the fact one of their starting XIs against City cost a whopping 3.5m euros to assemble.
Little wonder then Ajax was chosen as one of the clubs to feature when the European Club Association produced a report into Youth Academies in Europe. Piecing together case studies on nine of the most renowned facilities, this fascinating production, running to nearly 200 pages, compares them in terms of cost, size and success. The statistics are astounding. At any given time, 30 per cent of the players in the Dutch First Division will have spent some of their formative years at Ajax’s De Toekomst, a place where they are taught confidence on the ball is a priority.
If the Dutch have always been celebrated for nurturing talent, they are not alone. As Diego Matos, Sporting Clube de Portugal’s Head of Youth Academy points out, the Lisbon outfit is the only team in the world to have developed and trained two FIFA world players of the year, Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo. When asked to sum up their approach to training, it’s simple: The same exercises for all age groups (starting at 7), always with the ball. Only intensity and complexity changes.
It should also be pointed out that none of their kids play an 11 v 11 match until they are 12 years old. Imagine that. Maybe that approach explains why Portugal regularly field seven Sporting products in international matches and why 100 of the club’s graduates are currently playing professionally around Europe. All of those players came through the ranks just since 2002. Portugal has a population just over twice that of Ireland. How come one academy over there is able to produce so many more good players? Does anybody in the FAI ever wonder about that? If they don’t, they should.
There are several recurring themes in the report. One is the emphasis clubs place on honing the intelligence of their players. Not just their football intelligence, their actual intellectual development too. They all seem a lot more serious about academic matters than English clubs are known to be. At Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, the best teenagers are not allowed train or play if they fall behind in the classroom. At Standard Liege, one of the shining lights in terms of player development, the approach is all about “brain-centred learning”. At Barcelona, 11 of the players in the B team today combine playing with studying at university.
“The player should be trained in such a way that he can imagine the best solution during the action and have the technique that allows him to implement it,” reads the Barcelona entry. “At Barcelona, there is a strong belief that players will only succeed if sports training, education and a strong family unit are part of the players’ lives. This will help them become well-balanced, elite players.”
Problem-solving is another buzz phrase in this document. The idea is that all training is built around the players being put in positions where they have to figure out the best way forward for themselves. Anybody who has watched the Irish team in recent years can only wonder did any of the players who currently tog out for Giovanni Trapattoni ever get exposed to this kind of thinking at any stage in their development. You wouldn’t think problem-solving is a strength looking at them in recent games.
There is so much in this that it should be mandatory reading for everybody in the FAI. At Barca’s now fabled La Masia, the boys play 7 v 7 matches until the age of 13. The same at Racing Club Lens in France. While at Inter Milan, they play 9 v 9 until 13. These are the academies now ranked the finest in Europe and they feel the best way to groom young players is to have them playing small-sided games on small pitches. Yet in Cork, we still throw undersized 11 year olds onto full-sized fields where the big, fast fellas dominate and the skillful kids don’t get enough touches to develop.
Perhaps the most impressive element of the report though is how much these market leaders (and they all talk about running their academies as businesses) have in common. Every club talks about prizing training with the ball over physical work until the boys are 16 or so. Every club has variations on the theme about technique being the most important attribute to hone in a young player. If you’d expect that in this day and age, there’s also the matter of discipline. A lot of the academies now ban tattoos, baseball caps, jewellry, dyed hair and the wearing of shirts outside the shorts. Some even insisted the youngsters must wear black boots.
As the father of a 12 year old with salmon pink Nike Mercurials, that might be the rule I liked the most.
(This article first appeared in the Evening Echo on November 9th, 2012)