Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Can Ajax reclaim former glories with an accent on youth?

Few results this season have shocked world football as much as Ajax’s 4-1 demolition of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League.

Some blamed poor management at Madrid in the wake of Zinedine Zidane’s departure after winning European club football’s top prize last year.

The fact that they have now re-hired the French legend speaks volumes about how letting him go in the first place was a major mistake.

The Amsterdam Arena, home of Ajax

In part, his exit was borne out of frustration over plans to sell Cristiano Ronaldo, knowing Real would inevitably failing to replace him.

However, their stunning defeat at the hands of Ajax wasn’t entirely self-inflicted; it was also down to a renaissance for the Dutch giants.

In truth, they have been a shadow in recent years of the club which won four European Cups – three in a row from 1971-73 and another in 1995.

More TV money in other, larger markets have seen Ajax fall down the continent’s pecking order, but they have found a different way to compete with the Euro elite.

On a trip to Amsterdam two years ago, I witnessed the beginnings of a process which led directly to that recent 4-1 triumph in Madrid.

The opposing team that day at the Amsterdam Arena were AZ Alkmaar, and the final score exactly mirrored the win over Real two years later.

Trusting young talent

Against AZ, it was amazing to see Ajax field so many talented young players – a host of fearless 18 and 19-year olds starting in a fiercely competitive fixture.

Cruyff is a legendary player and manager

After 10 minutes or so, it was apparent they were quite right to trust in this latest batch of outstanding products from their famous De Toekomst academy.

Seven of those players in the squad to face Alkmaar started against Madrid in the second leg: Andre Onana, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, Frenkie De Jong Lasse Schone and Hakim Ziyech, with Schone on the scoresheet in both games.

Ajax has long had a reputation for turning out major talent, including Johan Cruyff, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristian Erikson and Luis Suarez to name but a few.

In 2011, Dutch master Cruyff returned to the club in a technical role and had plans to reinvigorate the club’s youth facilities, sell high-earning and ageing players and completely change the way that Ajax operated.

He resigned the following year after a dispute over attempts to bring Louis van Gaal into the club’s set-up, but the seeds of change were sown.

Erik ten Hag, Ajax’s current manager, has noted: “At 19, they needed to be ready to play in the first team, because at 20, they are gone.”

The reserve team, Jong Ajax would be filled with teenagers that would play the Ajax way of free-flowing attacking football.

De Toekomst currently produces the highest number of young players who become professionals. The academy clearly has a formula that works.

Director and former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has helped oversee this period of change. “We have to give a [clear] path to the next one. If players stay too long, the next ones cannot play. The whole things chokes.”

When 21-year-old midfielder Frenkie de Jong leaves this summer for Barcelona in a £74m transfer, Ajax has the likes of Jurgen Ekkelenkamp waiting to come through and take his place.

Hunting for honours

It is only recently, however, that Ajax has been able to combine nurturing young talent with challenging once again for Europe’s major honours.

‘The likes of De Light and Van de Beek will eventually move on, but Ajax hope they will have repaid them for polishing their talent before leaving’

For some time, they have produced players and sold them before they are able to make a real impact for Ajax outside of the Netherlands.

Last summer, seven of the current crop were called to a meeting and asked to extend their stays in Amsterdam for another season or two to help Ajax push for the elite prizes and give something back to the club that had developed their abilities from eight years old.

It worked, and they are now seeing their academy labour is now bearing fruit. As well as being through to the Champions League quarter-finals, Ajax is second in the Eredivisie, five points behind PSV Eindhoven with a game in hand.

The only player who didn’t respond to the club’s plea was Kluivert who wanted to escape from his father Patrick’s shadow and joined Roma.

The likes of De Light and Van de Beek will eventually move on, but Ajax hope they will have repaid them for polishing their talent before leaving.

Tragedy

Another future star who featured against AZ in that game two years ago was Abdelhak ‘Appie’ Nouri. He was seen as Ajax’s very brightest prospect, a player that the team could be built around.

Then, tragedy struck during a pre-season friendly in July 2017, when Nouri suffered a cardiac arrhythmia attack which resulted in severe and permanent brain damage.

As well as being a terrible blow for the player and his family, it must have placed a huge burden on his team-mates, preparing for a new season and having to fill the void left by Nouri’s enforced retirement at the age of 20.

Perhaps the experience of doing so further toughened up the rest of Ajax’s young guns; they have certainly pushed on this season, as confirmed by their Champions League progress.

Going all the way and securing another European crown may not be a realistic prospect, but a first Eredivisie title for four years (and a 34th overall) is definitely achievable.

In the meantime, more talent will be emerging from the Ajax academy, and perhaps some of those players will want to stay and create a dynasty of success in Amsterdam – if Van der Sar allows them…

All photos from Wikimedia Commons.

Ajax’s Nouri wary of pitfalls of fame

They had it all. Money and its glamorous trappings, growing fame, and the football world seemingly at their feet. But then they blew it.

The list of gifted young players who never made the grade despite early acclaim is long and includes Freddy Adu, Fabio Paim, Federico Macheda and Giovani Dos Santos to name but a few.

They were expected to one day become Ballon d’Or  contenders but instead now languish in Europe’s lower divisions.

“You should never think that you are there, that you have made it, because it’s only just the beginning”

Ajax Amsterdam’s wonderkid Abdelhak Nouri is adamant that he won’t join that starry collection of sad tales of what might have been. He knows that talent alone is not sufficient to go all the way.

“I won’t make the same mistakes, don’t worry,” says the 18-year old who is considered by many as the big hope of Dutch and European football.

Ajax are blessed with a number of youngsters with tremendous potential but there is no doubt Nouri the jewel in the crown and is already creating waves in the Netherlands.

“The spotlight and adulation from fans? I don’t care,” he told me. “I stay normal. I know that I always have to train hard, work hard, always be myself and of course stay with my feet on the ground.

“You should never think that you are there, that you have made it, because it’s only just the beginning.”

Spain or England one day

Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Olympique Marseille and Manchester United are all reportedly keen on securing the his services as they look to bolster their midfield options for next season, but Nouri is taking things step by step.

“My dream is to play at Ajax first, play good, and of course I want to be always the best player of my team. From there I’d like to go to Spain, England or France to a big club one day.”

“Stam always wants to help you. He nurtures you on and off the pitch. If you do something wrong, he says it to you but in a good way”

But that day, he’s alluding, is still far away.

In footballing terms, many liken him to Barcelona superstar Andrès Iniesta, with vision, great ball control, trickery, shooting ability, a great first touch and pace.

He is also blessed with the game management skills of a veteran, an eye for goal and intelligent movement.

Needless to say, the Adus and Machedas of this world also had many of these things. But perhaps they lack some of the other attributes Nouri has in abundance: humility, a strong personality and the right mindset. He’s also surrounded by the right people.

Ajax is run by world-renowned former stars such as Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Edvin van der Sar, Frank and Ronald de Boer, so Nouri knows where to turn should he ever struggle with an issue.

Nurturing

To help him achieve his ambitions, he trains under the tutelage of former Manchester United and AC Milan legend Jaap Stam, now the Ajax under-21s manager.

Now 44, the defender was propelled to global stardom after winning the treble with Manchester United in 1999. However, he was a man watched by millions but known by few.

As a player, he was every strikers’ nightmare – known for his tenacious tackles, electric pace and forbidding look. He was a leader and a disciplinarian on the field.

“Can Nouri eventually become the national team’s new fulcrum? Many in Holland believe he can”

Off the pitch, he was intensely private, and getting an interview out of him was an almost impossible mission for journalists. So what is Stam really like? Nouri is well placed to offer an insight.

“He’s a good person, he always wants to help you. He nurtures you on and off the pitch. If you do something wrong, he says it to you but in a good way and not in a bad way.

“You learn a lot from him. How we have to pressure and how we have to defend. Off the pitch he is also a great person. He always helps you.

“As a player I liked him too. Very aggressive. He was a great player, I’ve seen videos of him on YouTube… I liked him”, he said.

 The mighty have fallen

Ajax Amsterdam once belonged to football’s aristocracy but in recent years have found themselves in a seemingly irreversible decline.

Monetary issues coupled with a lack of outstanding players coming through its famed youth system, coupled with the low standards of the Dutch Eredivisie, have seen Holland’s most loved and loathed club vanish from the European map. The once-mighty have fallen.

“Nouri doesn’t embrace the compliment. He knows that Iniesta is a legend he’s a long way off from emulating”

As have the Dutch national team who finished fourth in their Euro 2016 qualifying group, missing out on this summer’s tournament in France.

The Netherlands’ struggles have raised a few eyebrows across Europe. It wasn’t that long ago that they were just a penalty shoot-out away from reaching the 2014 World Cup final, and they contested the final itself in 2010.

Can Nouri eventually become their new fulcrum? Can he be the man to build the team around? Many in Holland believe he can.

Stalwarts such as Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie and Rafael Van der Vaart are not getting any younger, and the academy graduate is by many regarded as a future pillar of the ‘Oranje’ alongside Davy Klaassen, a player Nouri rates highly.

Revival

“Klaassen is such a great player. He has the potential to become even better. He’s 22, very young, and he’s already captain at Ajax. It’s unbelievable. Wait a few years and he’ll play for a big, big club.

“However , I don’t know if I can be part of Holland’s revival. I will look step for step, there’s still far for me. It’s bad that they haven’t qualified [for Euro 2016] but maybe next time they will. With me? I don’t know.

“Nouri constantly references the fact that his career has only just started”

“That said, I am not going to support anybody at the Euros. My heart only beats for Holland. Five years ago, they reached the final of the World Cup. It was unbelievable…we were so close.

“My idol Iniesta scored the winner for Spain. He is such a great player. But at that moment I was not for Iniesta.

“People compare me to him because of the pace and dribbling, but I don’t know… I have to work hard to become like him,” he insisted.

There lies another difference between Nouri and those young players who never achieved their youthful promise. Some of them would have embraced the compliment. Nouri, on the other hand, doesn’t. He knows that Iniesta is a legend he’s a long way off from emulating.

Risks

If you were to describe him, the words that come to mind are humble, ambitious and single-minded. He is also already adept at handling the media and takes their attention in his stride.

Even at just 18, it feels as if Nouri knows how to deal calmly with everything that’s surely coming his way if his progress on the pitch continues.

Wait a few years and he’ll be the journalists’ most wanted man. For the time being, his fame is confined to the Netherlands but that won’t be the case for long.

Nouri constantly references the fact that his career has only just started. Unlike the Adus and Paims who felt they had ‘arrived’ after signing their first professional contract, Nouri doesn’t.

Stay humble, work hard, never think you are there – that is his mantra.

Yes, that list of talented young players who seemed to have it all before fading away will always grow longer – but Nouri’s name won’t be on it.