Winning not important to Dutch masters
- Cathal Kelly, Toronto Star
The first thing Patrick Ladru, technical director of the Ajax youth academy, takes issue with is Canada's winning attitude. He doesn't like it one bit.
"Parents here want to win," Ladru says disapprovingly, as he watches a group of young GTA footballers scrimmage. "Winning is not important. Having fun is important. Skills are important."
These aren't public-service ad platitudes. For nearly four decades, this has been the organizing principle of the most successful soccer school ever assembled. Teaching is what matters to these coaches. Pressure to win hinders teaching.
The results are self-evident. Ajax has produced some of the greatest players of all time - Frank Rijkaard, Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp are graduates. Hundreds more have gone on to top pro careers.
Ajax's coaching staff has been holding its first invitation-only skills camp in Canada over the last two weeks. The visit was organized by Toronto's Sigma Sports Solutions. This week about 90 youngsters paid the $335 fee required to get them in front of some of the world's top talent scouts on a sun-bleached Brampton field.
"We were just in Greece. I think the level here is better," Ladru says."(Canadians) play very well with the ball, but not without the ball." From his expression, it's clear that this is a serious shortcoming.
"Tricks are very important, especially for younger players," Ladru continues. "At this camp, we spend an entire day on them."
Ajax's De Toekomst (The Future) academy - an elite sports school where lessons and private tutorials are slotted around daily practices - currently holds about 160 children. The youngest - age 8 - play seven-on-seven on a half-field. Slowly, the players are weaned onto larger fields and into bigger teams. After rising through the ranks, the best footballers will turn professional and join Ajax's first team.
On an adjoining pitch, Ajax's head of international scouting Gerrie Muhren watches over a group of 15-year-olds. Muhren won three European championships with Ajax in the '70s. He knows how to win. Like Ladru, it's not something he's interested in teaching here.
"We have a saying at Ajax," Muhren says. "The first team must win. The rest may win."
Two or three of these 20-or-so players have caught his eye.
"They do what you ask - no crying or complaining. And they always have pleasure for the game." Where do they lack? "Tactically. Technique," Muhren says.
Here's a possibly true story about Muhren and technique. He once bet a teammate he could kick a ball through the small, open window of a restaurant from across the street. When a skeptical reporter stood up at the window, the force of Muhren's pinpoint strike sent him to hospital.
"They have a lot to learn," Muhren says, leaning in for emphasis. "A lot."
FIFA coach of the century, the late Rinus Michels, developed the Ajax system in the '60s and '70s. His creation - dubbed "total football" - combines positional discipline and skilled improvisation into a medley of constant offence. It's a joy to watch, but these days it is often thwarted by grim, defensive football.
"We always want to attack. That's why we lose," Muhren says ruefully of the infamously underperforming Dutch.
On another pitch, another Ajax great is at work. Simon Tahamata issurrounded by a chaotic gaggle of 9- and 10-year-olds. The stocky Tahamata isn't much taller than some of his charges. The kids are precociously skilful. They literally squeal with delight as Tahamata steals the ball and dances between them.
Now all the fields are in full swing. The coaches move quietly among the players, critiquing and organizing them. A dozen games are going on at once. There isn't a scoreboard in sight.