The Champions League is European club football’s elite competition. And this year’s tournament has been a real humdinger. Sizzling goals, incredible comebacks, and aristocrats like Juventus and Real Madrid unceremoniously dumped on their backsides.
While the heroics of Liverpool and Tottenham dominated the sports pages here in the UK on the road to the final, the real story for us L&D folks is the resurgence of AFC Ajax. A team of precocious starlets, unfazed by the big stage, who were a minute away from the final.
Now the Dutch outfit has a history in this tournament, hoisting the trophy on four occasions. But, those titles belong to a different era. The ‘total football’ of the seventies that yielded a hat-trick of victories.
Tip of the hat to Johan Cruyff.
And a lone triumph in the mid-nineties courtesy of Edgar Davids and co. Since then, the game has changed beyond all recognition.
TV money has poured into the big three European leagues: England, Spain and Italy. While some clubs outside this triumvirate benefit from wealthy backers – PSG with its pipeline of Qatari oil dollars – Ajax have been pushed to the margins.
Relative paupers forced to watch their European rivals grow strong from this injection of cash.
So, what happened? How were they able to roll back the years and reach the knockout stage for the first time since 2006?
The answer lies in their youth set-up and an aversion to the quick fix. Known simply as De Toekomst – The Future – the Ajax academy is the most successful production line of young footballers anywhere in the world. 77 players in the last decade have gone on to play in elite leagues all over Europe.
And the latest batch of kids has put Ajax back on the map. Half the current team are under 24, including their captain Matthijs de Ligt who is just 19. Watch him pick his way through a minefield of loaded media questions with the sureness of a seasoned pro and you’ll see a leader on and off the pitch mature beyond his years.
So, what sets De Toekomst apart as football’s pre-eminent academy? Let’s tour the facility and find out…
The system starts with thorough screening. Prospects are intensively scouted – for months or even years. Then, if they get the nod, they’re pushed to constantly improve. Yes, it’s a hothouse. But, creativity and passion are never sacrificed to get a result.
Consistency is key – the same style runs through the age grades, and crucially, these players learn how opponents think.
They don’t just play in their own position. They play every position. So a defender can anticipate a striker’s next move. And vice versa.
Ability to gel with teammates and take instruction are prized as much as skills. But, flair is actively encouraged. These kids know how to be a cog in the machine.
They also know when to rip up the script, wrong-footing opponents with unbelievable ‘tekkers’. And unlike the big clubs who splash out on expensive transfers, Ajax gives these youngsters a chance. A blueprint we can repurpose back at the office to foster new talent and allow the next generation to shine.