How do Ajax manage to produce such talented youth players year after year? It never seems to end.
That’s the great thing about a club like Ajax. It’s not just about the first-team coach or the senior team, but also the youth coaches, the teachers and the scouts who manage to select the right players.
The club’s philosophy is that these guys know they will get a chance at Ajax, and if you are good enough you will play in the first team. That’s the great thing for these guys, because when you are 17 and you see your friend making his debut in the first team, you want that too.
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You also want to get that attention and feel that pressure. So many players have made that journey with Ajax, and a lot more will do the same in the years to come.
There’s also a particular style of play at Ajax which the club is famour for – the Dutch school with wingers. How sacred is that?
That’s pretty sacred. Although I don’t think we are the only team that plays like that. In the end you all have 11 players on the pitch, so how many formations can you play? We say that everyone in the youth teams plays the same, but in the end the first-team coach is allowed to make changes in that area too.
But the youth teams are all trained in a certain way and then the technical team and the coach of the first team have to make sure that a team can also play that way in the national competition or in Europe.
It’s increasingly difficult for a team with younger players to compete, but I presume Ajax will continue in the same direction as always?
We will, but it is difficult as there are plenty of pitfalls for players. There are first-team opportunities for 17, 18, 19-year-olds at Ajax if they have the talent, perseverance and tactical skills. Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United once said about a certain player: “Yes, he’s a big prospect, a great talent” and that guy was 23. Our captain is 23 and he has played 150 matches in the first team and plays for the national team. Those are the opportunities that Ajax offers.
Do you think there’s more pressure here because at Ajax they not only expect you to win but to win with style?
Yes, but there’s nothing wrong with pressure, is there? That is also how we educate our players: you are an Ajax player, so act like it. You’re expected to be creative, play attacking football and display the core values of Ajax on the pitch. People want to be entertained. That doesn’t always work out, of course, because sometimes you are under pressure and then it’s just about surviving. But even then, you still have to win.
Matthijs de Ligt and Justin Kluivert, both 17, have made their breakthroughs this season – how important is this?
It’s what Ajax stands for. We give young players dreams and opportunities, and then it is up to you to stay there. We are a team that raises players – our core business is education. That’s what we stand for, to give these guys a stage and to take care that when a player leaves, the next one is ready to take his place. We are one of the few clubs in the world able to do that and that’s why we are respected in international football.
Some of these players weren’t even born when you were here in the 1990s, but I presume the current group of players are aware of the club’s history?
Yes, this is very important. Not a lot of clubs have four [European Cups]. We try not only to train our young players as footballers, we also try to educate them in other fields. And that way you have to look at the club’s history. Who made the club? We try to show that to the younger players so they know who these players were and what they did for the club.