Access all areas at Ajax where Edwin van der Sar and Matthijs de Light reveal what makes their academy so special. (2:54)
AMSTERDAM — Matthijs de Ligt knows everyone outside of Ajax is talking about his future and which European superpower will secure his much-coveted signature.
“Am I annoyed by the rumours? No. Bored? A little bit,” De Ligt tells ESPN. “But it doesn’t matter to me if there’s an article about where I should go or what I should do. It doesn’t matter, at all.”
He is only 19 and already captaining Ajax. He was named European Golden Boy in December and as he talks on a pitch at their training ground, he is excited about the future. But while he is content, the rest of Europe talks about him. That morning’s Mundo Deportivo had photographs of Frenkie de Jong and De Ligt with the headline “De Jong Sube… Y De Ligt Baja” — the Spanish newspaper speculated Barcelona were in pole position for De Jong but had fallen behind Juventus in the race for De Ligt. Every day, there’s a new club: Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United have all been mentioned in the past week.
Clubs coveting Ajax’s talent is nothing new. It dates back to Johan Cruyff, who eventually moved to Barcelona in 1973. Then there was the chase for Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Edwin Van der Sar, Wesley Sneijder, Christian Eriksen and so on. Not only is their academy impressive; so too is their eye for signing low-profile foreign talent like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez and developing them into superstars. Now it is De Ligt’s turn.
Talking to De Ligt, it’s easy to forget he is a teenager as age matters little at Ajax. If a player is good enough, they will be given a chance with the first-team. It is a place anchored on progression. They have this mantra of the next challenge being one pitch away at their academy and training ground, called De Toekomst (“The Future”).
Every side from the Under-9s to the first-team train here. There are 12 pitches stretched out, a patch of green in the middle of motorways five miles from the Dam Square, the historical center of Amsterdam. Small grandstands hug the pitches where the teams play competitively, with a concrete hub — laced in Ajax nostalgia — in the middle where players change, eat and learn. Talent is rewarded with opportunity and every year the academy offers up another future superstar to the first team.
De Ligt has been at Ajax since he was nine years old. “This is my home… it’s really nice,” he says. It is a chilly morning, the type where a cold wind manages to somehow invade your clothing. De Ligt has just finished training and sitting in his gold Ajax tracksuit top and shorts seems untroubled by the temperatures and politely turns down the offer of a coat. He talks about the excitement of facing Real Madrid in the Champions League knockout stages and the chance to win the Dutch Eredivisie.
Conversation then switches to everyday Amsterdam life outside of the training ground walls, and he hears about how we had nearly been hit countless times by self-destructive folk on bicycles in the city centre. He laughs, his face suddenly reverting to his teenage self, and explains that it must be tourists as locals are far too streetwise to nearly wipe out a bunch of confused visitors. Then as conversation switches back to football, he returns to the face of a player worth €70 million and everything that comes with being one of the best young players in the world.
“Everybody is saying something new and you realise the newspapers are always saying something as it has to be interesting for somebody,” De Ligt says. One day Ajax will sell De Ligt and De Jong, with both rumoured to be off in the summer, but they are happy to ignore the outside noise. Ajax have such confidence in their academy they know they will be able to produce another player to step into the void. Losing a superstar is hardly ideal, but it’s not a make-or-break moment for the club. In fact, it’s their business model: develop the next generation of stars and sell them to help fund the next wave, making the process self-sustainable.
It is an annual challenge to navigate but training just a pitch away from the first team will be the next De Ligt and the next De Jong itching to step up. And we will be back here in five years asking them the same question.
CASIMIR WESTERVELD, AJAX’S HEAD of youth recruitment, is standing on a balcony above one of the training pitches at De Toekomst explaining the academy’s philosophy.
“Like Johan Cruyff once said, it’s never a team that makes its debut, it’s a single player, an individual,” says Westerveld. “We need to develop individual players so every player within our academy has his own individual plan to make the steps needed to finally get in to the first team.
“We use our [academy] team more or less not to win games, but to try to develop as many individual players as possible.”
Below the balcony, the Under-13s are training as the thud of footballs against railings and sporadic words of guidance from coaches echo through the open door. The move they are practising breaks down and the players, all varying heights and at differing stages of physical development, are called back to start again.
They line up in two sets of a 4-3-3 formation. The goalkeeper plays the ball out to either the centre-back or wing-back. They shift it to the midfield, who then look for one of the two inside forwards, coiled like springs to pounce on a through ball, while the striker makes a nuisance of himself in the box. If they lose the ball, they must win it back within three seconds. Fail to do that, or if they score, and it is back to the start again.
They practice this over and over again. Just like Jong Ajax, the club’s second team, and De Ligt’s first team do. They all play and think the same way.
“It’s one club and one philosophy and what we also say is, ‘it’s one city.’ Amsterdam being free, freedom of speech, of choice making leads to creative, open-minded people,” Westerveld says. “That is what you see back in our game and our philosophy. It’s creativity, it’s attacking football and it’s a philosophy in playing style.”
At De Toekomst, there are plans to expand to 17 pitches and update the facilities, including a 3,000-capacity stadium where Jong Ajax and the Under-19s will play. The training ground also has a school where the Under-14s to Under-19s receive their education, while fitting in seven training sessions a week and a match on Saturday. The club put on cars to ferry them to and from De Toekomst. Those from Under-8 to Under-13 — age groups are decided on years, rather than governed by school term structure — typically come from in and around the Amsterdam area, with the farthest living 60 kilometres away. All 250 or so academy prospects have individual plans but their coaches are constantly on the lookout for new talent.
Ajax have four full-time scouts working in and around the Netherlands looking for first-team players, and another four abroad. The youth scouting operation is anchored by eight professional youth scouts and a network of 90 volunteers who keep the club updated on players of all ages up and down the country. They are usually people who know the club, either through playing there or because of their knowledge of the Ajax system. Ajax typically seek the scouts out but occasionally they are approached.
“In Holland we say: success has many fathers,” Westerveld says. “Many will claim to have found the star. But for us it’s a team effort.”
As the players progress with Ajax, they are allowed into increasingly more spacious and accommodating red-and-white changing rooms. The best four are named after Ajax legends Swart, Frank Rijkaard, Piet Keizer and of course Cruyff, where the first team and Jong Ajax change. For those who make it from Under-16 to Under-19 level, 80 percent will go on to be professional footballers, with Ajax boasting more youth graduates currently in European football than any other team.
“It’s the winning mentality,” De Ligt says. “It’s the mentality of improving every day, becoming better every day and the discipline to do that. That’s what you see here.”
IT IS LUNCHTIME IN the canteen at Ajax Amsterdam’s training ground and youth academy. This is where the future, present and past all meet.
De Jong is chatting to passers-by while, at the next table, some of the Under-17 players are inhaling plates of lean meat and potatoes. Michael Reiziger, now coach of Ajax’s second team, and the club’s CEO Van der Sar stroll through, greeting players who hope to emulate their 1995 Champions League success.
There is a photograph of Johan Cruyff in a glass cabinet, alongside silverware from their trophy-laden spell in the 1970s when they were the best team in Europe. Everything comes back to Cruyff, the man who inspired a footballing revolution but whose philosophy is as influential as ever in all areas of the club. Sjaak Swart, a key cog in the famous three-time European Cup-winning side of the 1970s and the man named “Mr Ajax,” is sat in front of the cabinet, holding court as Van der Sar shakes his hand.
John Heitinga, who was capped 87 times by the Netherlands and is now manager of Ajax’s Under-19 side, is talking about De Ligt. “Once in a while you see a player, and they have something special,” Heitinga says. He recounts how early one morning on a rest day for the first-team, he went to the gym and found De Ligt there, already drenched in sweat.
“He was there by himself. I asked him ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ It’s just his mindset. He knows what he needs and how to prepare himself. He’s the captain. He’s the boss.”
Within Ajax, there is no fanfare around these players. It keeps the players grounded; for the club it’s just another year and they are too busy preparing the next batch to come through. Heitinga is talking about 16-year-old Ryan Gravenberch (the youngest Ajax player to play in the Eredivisie) and we ask him about a striker nicknamed the “Brobeast.”
“Brian Brobbey is the quickest here at Ajax,” Heitinga says. “He does 30 meters in 3.7 seconds. He is 16, 91 kilogrammes, his body fat is low, and his one leg jumping is higher than Cristiano Ronaldo. We have everything here to test the players.”
Heitinga, who played 152 times for Ajax before moving to Atletico Madrid in 2008, shakes De Jong’s hand as he walks past. “It’s hard to compete with PSG, Man City as they have plenty of money,” Heitinga says. “We have to do it with our academy, it’s our product. Our youngsters are playing the same as the first team, that’s the Ajax DNA.”
THIS IS THE FIRST season since 2006 Ajax qualified for the Champions League knockout stages and their last Eredivisie title was in 2014. That title-winning team is now spread across Europe. Their annual budget is in the region of €100m — a budget like a lower-table English top-flight side — and the 10-year, €1.04 billion Eredivisie television deal equates to just one Premier League year. Ajax cannot compete with the wages on offer abroad, nor does the Eredivisie standard challenge England, Germany, Spain or Italy, with PSV Eindhoven and Ajax by far and away the division’s dominant sides.
Van der Sar speaks delicately, with authority but with humility as tries to remember all the trophies he won in his remarkable playing career. We talk in the club’s boardroom, the walls decorated with silver plates recognising success throughout the different age groups. It is ultimately Van der Sar’s call on when a player departs. He is the CEO and though there will be input from Marc Overmars — the club’s sporting director and fellow 1995 Champions League-winner — and also from the manager, the player and the agent, it will be Van der Sar’s pen on the contract if they do sell De Jong to Barcelona.
He describes interest in De Jong and De Ligt as a “compliment” but when asked how long the club can hold on to them, he answers: “That’s the big question of course, when you see the numbers. But we are a club that’s financially very stable. We have a war chest. Our stadium is sold out every match. We have good commercial partners.
“We sold some players in the past [but] at a certain point you have to ask if you can retain players. Hakim Ziyech was a player who received some interest and we managed to keep hold of him and improve his contract.”
The idealistic dream would be to keep this group together, coupled with the youngsters coming through, but that’s where the limitations of the Eredivisie come in. That and a reported €75m offer for De Jong is hard to ignore.
“We have our philosophy, players, city, stadium and history… we have a lot of things going on, but we play in a small league,” Van der Sar says. “We don’t have to sell them but at a certain point for the player’s development — I’ve seen that myself as well — you think you’re ready, you want to compete against better, world class players, and unfortunately they’re not playing in Holland.”
When a club stalwart leaves it is not in ignominy with the hoodie pulled down over their faces, but instead they depart as legends. Heitinga’s final match in 2008 was marked by supporters turning one side of the stadium into a mural of him. When Van der Sar left for Juventus in 1999, he had a send-off at the City Hall where 400 or so fans turned up, complete with fireworks, to wish him well.
“We try to put forward to them, first success at the club, win the league, do well in Europe, get in the national team and after two or three years — preferably four years — it’d be good for them also to go,” Van der Sar says. “There is probably someone waiting in the wing, eagerly, waiting for their chance as if that player goes, then that position will be mine.
“That’s what our supporters want, also. They want to see players they have an affinity with. They follow them from the academy: they see them at 11, 15 and then they see him make a debut and that’s what our supporters like.
“We are there for talented players who want to come to Ajax and create a legacy for themselves.”
IT IS AN INTRIGUING time for Ajax fans. Last summer they tweaked their transfer policy by investing in experienced playmaker Dusan Tadic and bringing back Ajax product Daley Blind from Manchester United, a break from the norm of buying or developing youth players. They recognise that players with more miles on the clock will have a limited re-sale value but the pair should offer a constant presence in the team where young faces are frequently blooded.
“Things are working, we are doing nice stuff in China, we have an Australian partner. I was in Cape Town for three days last week where we have a sister club and we opened an office in New York,” Van der Sar explains. “Things are moving, and we need to get the name of Ajax back on more people’s lips. We don’t have the big, star players — the Ronaldos, Hazards, Ramos or Bale — but we have a philosophy, a history and that is what a lot of people like. That’s what we want to get over to the world. You’re going to have your favourite club. But why can Ajax not be your second favourite club because one of your players have been educated at Ajax?”
This season the club are unbeaten in Eredivisie, are in the quarterfinals of the KNVB Cup and have Real Madrid in the Champions League knockout stages. Jong Ajax won Eerste Divisie (the league below the Eredivisie) last year, while Heitinga’s Under-19s topped their pool in the UEFA Youth League and the Under-17s took the Future Cup last April.
All the while, the club tries to stay true to its foundation: giving youth a chance and playing beautiful football while keeping Cruyff at the forefront.
De Ligt genuinely loves the club’s history, embracing the weight of nostalgia rather than palming it off with a made-for-media answer. He grew up idolising some of the people you now see walking around the canteen on any given day and while he was not born when Ajax won their fourth European Cup in 1995, he loves that the fans expect them to be challenging for it every year.
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“They won the Champions League so they are like heroes here,” De Ligt says, as Van der Sar walks past. “We also want to be heroes here for the crowd, for ourselves, for the people in Amsterdam and we want to achieve as much as possible. For me, I want to play as many big games, good games and that’s something I can achieve here at Ajax.”
De Jong will definitely stay at Ajax until the end of the current campaign, before then potentially joining Barcelona. De Ligt will not give thought to overtures from abroad until the end of the season. Then he will make a call on what he describes as a “feeling” on what’s next. “At some point you have to look for something else and what the best option is, but at this moment I don’t think about that.”
As he looks around, you see the teenager still there. The one who grew up wanting to captain Ajax. In a handful of years there will be another teenager sat here, fielding interest from European superpowers. He’ll be the one who joined at the age of seven or eight, who grew up supporting Ajax, who can play with both feet, who looks forward rather than back and was brought up on tales of Cruyff, the 1995 team and if things go to plan, the De Ligt era.
“This place means a lot to me,” De Ligt says. “I grew up here. I came here when I was nine years old. At Ajax you learn to win every game, to be at your best every game and it doesn’t matter who your opponent is. It’s in my blood.”