Football / Coaching at the Crossroads: The Dutch do it very differently

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The Independent Online
IN AMSTERDAM, Italy's Serie A is known as Serie Ajax because of the number of players - some as young as seven when the Dutch club took them under their wing - who have made the grade there.

The list of those coached as kids and eventually sold on by the club who gave the world Johan Cruyff includes Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Bryan Roy and Frank Rijkaard. All received a football education which contrasts starkly with the British way.

'Twice a year we bring 1,200 boys here from all over the country for a week-long 'happening', a massive trial,' an Ajax official, David Endt, explained. 'They play lots of little matches before we sift out the best 40.'

The chosen few are selected for TIPS - technique, intelligence, personality and speed. 'We don't look for strength or physique, but whether they've got good feet and a football brain,' Endt said. 'Then our 12 coaches - not all well- known ex-players but steeped in Ajax's attacking style - start to hone their skills with a lot of ball contact.'

Two aspects set the Dutch system apart. One is that on each of the four nights a week that the eight to 16-year-old boys attend Ajax's coaching classes, they are given 'football homework' (the club also have a 'study committee' to liaise with their day-time schools, whereby any boy neglecting academic work can be prevented from playing football).

The other is that all boys learn to play different positions. This is to help them outwit an opponent by appreciating better what he might be thinking, and has the advantage of encouraging versatility. Bergkamp, goal-scoring scourge of England and Norwich, played everywhere from right-back to left midfield.

The next prodigy tipped for Italy, Clarence Seedorf, 17, has no easily defined position. 'You can play him anywhere,' Endt said, adding that Seedorf has been with Ajax since he was 10. 'Total Football' lives on - but by design rather than an accident of geography.