Footballing world sees many reasons to go Dutch

Players and profit the driving forces behind rapidly developing world of youth academies

Nathan Ake (center, with the cup), captain of Netherlands U-17 team accepts the cup from Michel Platini, president of Uefa after winning the European Under-17 Football Championship final match between Germany and Netherlands in Ljubljana on May 16th, 2012. Photograph: Jure Makovec/AFP/GettyImages

Nathan Ake (center, with the cup), captain of Netherlands U-17 team accepts the cup from Michel Platini, president of Uefa after winning the European Under-17 Football Championship final match between Germany and Netherlands in Ljubljana on May 16th, 2012. Photograph: Jure Makovec/AFP/GettyImages


It would be easy to miss the entrance to the Dutch football association on a leafy road outside Zeist, itself almost an upmarket suburb of Utrecht. People find the place, though. They come from all over.

The Germans came 10 years ago for the same reason they all do, to find out how the association (or KNVB to give it its proper title) was developing its young players. The English, French and countless others have been before and since; all wanting to look and learn so that they can go back home and teach.

Some just nab one of the teachers, as the FAI has just done for a second time by hiring Dutch Under-16 national team coach Ruud Dokter to be its new High Performance Director, a position he will take up over the summer.

It’s a wonder they’re all let in, you might think, but KNVB technical director Mohammed Allach dismisses the idea that they should be turned away. “No, no, it’s not a problem,” he says. “You can help others; share your knowledge but only as long as you keep thinking two steps ahead yourself.”

Allach, a 39-year-old former pro, is constantly trying to think at least that far ahead. Dutch football has travelled an astonishing distance since announcing its arrival onto the international stage in the late 1960s and early 1970s courtesy of Ajax, Feyenoord and then the national team itself.

The national team went from 1938 to 1974 without qualifying for a tournament but then became a sensation thanks, in no small part, to the contribution of Johann Cruyff. Various successes followed and as their coaches and players began to move abroad their influence began to be felt across Europe and beyond.

By the mid-nineties the Dutch were key players in a major Uefa programme aimed at teaching and promoting the game. Others played it just as well, it might be argued, but none thought about it nearly as much. More specifically, few were even in their league when it came to thinking about the teaching of it.

The Dutch start with an advantage over their rivals, contends Allach, with obvious enthusiasm. “We’re a small country, only 16 million, “but we’re not afraid to be creative, to do business, to communicate; these things are all in our DNA and that’s really important.

“Also we have 3,200 clubs and 1.2 million registered members; that’s a lot. And along with Norway we have the most volunteers of any country – trainers, referees, administrators – so I can say that our players are just talented but really this is the basis for our success.”

Punch above weight
That, he says, along with the way those involved in the game have relentlessly sought to make the most of those resources have enabled the Dutch to punch far above their weight on the international stage.

Youth development has been at the heart of much of this. The biggest clubs – Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV – have led the way and enjoyed major international success with teams based around home grown talent. As revenues in some other European leagues have come to dwarf those in the Eredivisie, though, and clubs have learned to adapt. None has won a European trophy since Feyenoord’s Uefa Cup success of 2002 but against the odds they have remained competitive at the highest level while exporting many of their best players each year with a combined €84 million earned last year; a third of it from Russia, roughly a sixth each from Italy and England.

For many of the buyers the Dutch national youth teams serve as a shop window and a remarkable level of success at under-17 level, in particular, has ensured consistently high levels of interest in teenagers like Nathan Ake, who made the bench for Chelsea in last Wednesday’s Europa League final and started yesterday’s final league match of the season against Everton at Stamford Bridge yesterday.

Inevitably, however, others have decided to do it for themselves and across Europe major clubs like Manchester City and Real Madrid along with national associations, like Germany’s and England’s have invested huge sums in academies and other aspects of youth development.

Dutch clubs currently spend around seven per cent of income or €22 million each year on grooming talent for the future but the figure has remained fairly constant over the last few years. The corresponding figure in France, meanwhile, is now €45 million and in England its €140 million while the likes of Turkey and Ukraine have trebled their spend in the last two years alone in an attempt to play catch up. “What they are doing now in Ukraine is unbelievable,” says Allach with a slight sense of wonder.

German threat
It is the Germans, however, who he sees as the most immediate threat to his own nation’s traditional status as leaders in this field. “Don’t get me wrong I think it is admirable because I am a professional and they take it so seriously but they have 80 million people compared to our 16 million, six million players compared to our 1.2 and they spend €91 million compared to our €22 million so we have to be careful because if not, they might eat us.”

Where the DFB have particularly excelled, Allach suggests, is in their research and development with various programmes established in co-operation with big universities. Where they have their most telling advantage, he says, is in the scale of their competitions.

Central to the KNVB’s own philosophy has been the motto “the best with the best”; the idea being that exceptional players are allowed to train with and play against other exceptional players at the earliest possible age; talent spotting routinely starts at five years old with some academies taking players from seven or so.

With under-age structures based on the Bundesliga, though, and the likes of Bayern Munich’s under-21 side competing in lower adult divisions the Germans have a major edge, one he feels will be greatly enhanced by Uefa’s introduction next season of Champions League for Under-19 teams.

“Here there is only three clubs that are always playing for the (youth) championship. In Germany there are so many clubs the resistance (standard of opposition) is bigger and that is good for the development of the players. And now the Champions League will make these clubs more attractive to young players so it will be harder to keep them at home to complete their (football) university. It is very dangerous for us.”

The association, meanwhile, is stepping up its efforts to exploit the expertise of its leading coaches like Louis van Gaal, Guus Hiddink and Frank Rijkaard as well as former players and even athletes from other disciplines, business people and anyone else, indeed, who can contribute to a process of constant evaluation.

Dutch levels of co-operation between clubs seems fairly unthinkable here in Ireland where the FAI puts its investment in the last four years in “grassroots programmes, high performance, and emerging talent programmes” at €60 million but resistance from schoolboy outfits to a national under-17 league is one of the problems Dokter, like Wim Koevermans before him, will have to contend with.

Working together
Allach is adamant, however, that everyone can benefit from working together. “If you want better players in your league and to earn money from those who leave then one of the most important things is to open the doors, to co-operate, to look for opportunities and to overcome challenges together,” he says. “Of course clubs are competing with each other but together they have to compete with other countries, with other clubs in other countries and if you’re just arguing with each other all the time, keeping what you have to yourselves, then you’re never going to be better as a club or a country.”

“It’s something that we have in common,” he adds, “having to deal with bigger countries. But we have a vision and if you look at our young teams they are full of players who are so talented and they are getting their education at our universities (academies). It’s not so difficult but you must have a vision for Irish football too.”