AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, Mar 6 – Johan Cruyff would have been proud.
The spectacular qualification by Ajax for the Champions League quarter-finals at the expense of Real Madrid on Tuesday bore the stamp of the Dutch great who died three years ago.
In 2011, no longer recognising his Ajax, Cruyff undertook the task of rebuilding the famous youth school, by now known as ‘De Toekomst’ (the future), where he had learned his football.
Cruyff’s declared aim was “to focus on the individual, because it is by training exceptional individuals that we will build a great team”.
De Toekomst is a complex of 12 pitches located a few hundred metres from the club’s main stadium, now named the Johan Cruyff ArenA.
There Ajax train the young talent uncovered by the club’s eight full-time scouts and 90 volunteers, generally from within 60 kilometres of Amsterdam.
It took time for Cruyff’s reforms to bear fruit. But the backbone of the team that won 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night was molded at the Toekomst.
Frenkie de Jong (21), Matthijs de Ligt (19), Donny van de Beek (21), Kasper Dolberg (21), Andre Onana (22) and Rasmus Kristensen (21) are all products of the youth system.
Of the older players who add experience, Daley Blind (28), who has returned after four years at Manchester United, was in the youth system when Cruyff started to implement his plan.
Ajax won the last of their four Champions Cup trophies in 1995 under Louis van Gaal.
That was also a squad built around the young home grown talent, including Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen, as well as another veteran who had returned to his first club, Frank Rijkaard.
“This generation is almost as strong as that of 1995,” Van Gaal told Panenka magazine in February.
– Exceptional generation –
“I said that in October when Ajax was going to face Bayern and people made fun of me.”
Ajax probably need to win soon with this exceptional generation.
The 1995 team quickly began to break up as players left for richer clubs, although Ajax hung on to Van der Sar and the de Boer brothers until 1999.
But that 1995 triumph was soon followed by the Bosman ruling which made it harder for clubs to keep talent.
At a club which welcomes back its prodigal sons, Van der Sar, now the general manager, oversees the youth project with technical director Marc Overmars.
“It is clear that we will have difficulties keeping these players together,” said Overmars, who as a player left Ajax at the age of 23 to join Arsenal.
Indeed the summer sale of de Jong to Barcelona, the other club rebuilt by Cruyff, for 75 million euros is already agreed.
Yet Overmars’ pragmatism is not tinged with pessimism. The talent reservoir of Ajax seems deep.
Ryan Gravenberch, a midfielder, became the youngest first-team player in club history when he made his debut in the Dutch first division in September at 16 years and 130 days old, 112 days younger than Seedorf when he set the previous record.
Brian Brobbey, a 17-year-old striker, is also talked of as a phenomenon.
The club is good at making the most of all that young talent: 86 per cent of players trained at the club turn professional.
Last summer the club made a video to convince the latest generation of their potential.
It compared goalkeeper Onana to Van der Sar, striker Dolberg to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ligt to Daley’s father Danny Blind and Jong to Christian Eriksen, one of four former Ajax players, three of them products of the youth system, who were part of the Tottenham team that also recorded a notable away victory on Tuesday night.
At the Bernabeu, the latest generation of Ajax talent lived up to the video and won a remarkable victory in a style that would have made Cruyff proud.