They New York Times ran a piece a couple of weeks ago that was widely circulated in the soccer community about the famed Ajax academy system in Amsterdam. I was first made familiar with this when I worked for Total Soccer Systems in 2000 and they took two teams to Europe. I didn’t go but I heard a lot about the trip from the coaches who did and it sounds like little has changed.
Ajax buses pick up the kids after school who have made it into the academy and take them directly to training. While there the techniques and principles of play that define Ajax are drilled into players starting as young as seven. As the author says, they are dropped into a competitive cauldron and each spring they find out whether they will be invited back or not. It’s phenomenal pressure for kids to be put under and it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t prematurely harden a lot of kids to the harshness of life.
Ajax aren’t the only ones running academies like this. Most of the big clubs have similar setups but Ajax’s may be unique in the openness with which they admit that their primary goal is to build players that they can sell on to other clubs at some point. The case of Wesley Sneijder is given as an example of how the sale of one player can fund the academy for up to a decade. They are very open about this being a business and that players are the product on sale.
Contrast this with the ‘human trafficking’ approach of agents and academies in parts of Africa as highlighted in a new documentary called Soccer’s Lost Boys (watch it here; sorry it doesn’t seem to want to embed)
This sort of buying, selling and relocating of young African players is what led FIFA to recently legislate that all soccer academies must fall under the jurisdiction of the home countries governing football body so they can monitored and, where needed, regulated.
The Times piece was hardly fawning and had a tone that ran close to presenting this as a cautionary tale. What’s even more telling though is the comments section which run heavily towards applauding Ajax and reiterating that it’s a business. There’s very few like this:
Treating a 13 year old as if he is an asset and calling it a business is child abuse. What happens to the other 99 children who did not get an education while pursuing a statistically unrealistic dream? Sports is meant to teach discipline, teamwork, and preserverance, not as a way to chase riches.
I’m guessing though that many more people in that comments section would take issue with how the ‘development’ of young players in the Africa’s Lost Boys documentary is presented. Yes, it does add the angle of packing players up and moving them away from their family and making ridiculous promises to secure parental signatures but in the end, it’s still the commodification of young kids both at Ajax and in Africa. Keeping it closer to home and providing transportation to and from training sanitizes it a bit but eventually someone will do a paper on the effects that being spit out of development systems like these has on kids and I’m guessing it will find the vast majority are not well-adjusted.
When I was 18, I was one of about a dozen players from B.C. invited to the final training camp for the Canadian National Youth team (it was then a U19 team). The camp was in Hamilton, Ontario and the vast majority of players there were from either Vancouver or the Toronto area. There were a couple from Alberta and a handful from Quebec and that was it. When talk turned to who would make the team and who wouldn’t (and you can imagine that sort of talk was omnipresent) there was one player, who shall remain nameless, from B.C. who there was almost unanimous agreement on. Not only was it felt he would make the team but would almost certainly captain it. He was the only one of us there who had signed professionally and was training with the original Vancouver Whitecaps. He had long been considered the premier player in our age group going back several years.
After a week the first round of cuts were made and there were two seismic shocks. One was that almost all the B.C. players were cut (I was one of three who ended up making the team along with Paul Dolan and Nick Gilbert) and the player in question was one of the cuts.
I’ll never know if that moment was what pushed him over the edge. I do know, as soon as he was told he wasn’t going to make the team, he went back to his residence room in Whidden Hall at McMaster University and set about throwing furniture around and causing some damage. It was inconceivable to him (and us) that this had happened. He was on a path and back in 1984 this was the first national team you had a chance to be considered for. There was no U15 or U17 teams back then. It was like his shiny new car and had just hit an invisible wall on the highway and the impact was both bewildering and very damaging.
Very quickly he spiralled downwards. The Whitecaps soon folded and having left school before graduating to play full time he didn’t have much of an education to fall back on. Trouble with the law followed as did a stint in a residential mental health institute. To my knowledge, he never played at any serious level again.
Is that representative of what is likely to happen to every player who goes through a few years at Ajax only to be released at 15 or one of the Lost Boys in Africa? I don’t think so but it’s the only relatively similar case that I’m personally familiar with. I do know that the pressure parents feel both in Amsterdam and throughout Africa to seize these, often illusory, opportunities to immerse their very young kids in professional football pathways is, from a cultural and economic standpoint, immense. I can only imagine that it clouds rational thought and prevents them from seeing the downside to throwing pre-pubescent kids into the sort of tense, cut-throat environments that most adults shy away from never mind nine year olds.
So Holland with its strong social safety net and liberal outlook on social development still has its share of ‘stars in their eyes’ parents who compromise what must be their better judgement in order to increase the chances of their sons playing top flight professional football from .1% to .5%. In terms of risk/reward ratio it’s much easier to understand the average African parent making these choices as the gap, generally, in the standard of living between what they can offer their children compared to how Didier Drogba lives is massively bigger than what faces the average Dutch boy who can’t cut it at Ajax.
If I can find info on whether Africa’s Lost Boys will broadcast locally in Vancouver, I’ll post here. If anyone else does, feel free to put it in the comment section.