Total appeal of youth culture

Ian Ridley says there are lessons for everyone in the ascendancy of Ajax
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IT MAY have been a sickly season in England, with all its Fash and Grob, Cantona and cant, booze, bungs, and banging up - and not least John Jensen scoring a goal. But in Europe, with a triumph of romance over finance, there was a measure of redemption for this damned and damned riveting game.

In the soothing balm of a spring Viennese night, evidence abounded that the rich do not necessarily need to get richer to succeed; that a loving footballing education can still conquer all. We should cling to Ajax of Amsterdam's victory over the mega-rich Milan, and the thoughtful way it was achieved, with hope in our hearts.

It should have been a lesson to many, and was certainly the best possible riposte to Uefa, who by some sharp rule-changing would have excluded Ajax - had they not won the European Cup - from next season's Champions' League even though they have retained their Dutch title. Under the change, the results in Europe achieved over a five-year-period by all of a country's clubs, rather than a club's own results, will now count towards exemption from qualifying rounds.

It means that Blackburn Rovers are initial beneficiaries, along with Nantes and Real Madrid. This may have something to do with England, France and Spain being lucrative television and sponsorship markets. The losers are teams from Eastern Europe and the smaller nations such as Holland and Belgium. These are not quite such lucrative markets.

Admittedly, Wednesday's result was only 1-0, the same score as our FA Cup final and with probably less goalmouth incident, the more of it at the Ajax end. And had Dejan Savicevic been playing, a Milan chance or two might have been taken.

Also, the Ajax concept of "total football" looked somewhat forlorn in the first half, with Marcel Desailly closing all avenues around the attacking touchstone, Ronald de Boer, so that Ajax's movement was restricted and their front five strung out. "Our coach was angry at half-time," de Boer said later. "He said only four of us were playing; seven were not."

Ultimately, though, Ajax cutely worked their way through the tactical problems they were set until their own inventive scheme prevailed. The teenager Nwankwo Kanu was a totem with twinkling feet as de Boer revelled in a more withdrawn role and Patrick Kluivert injected the unpredictable.

In a final of satisfying contrasts, that of two substitutes had most resonance. Ajax's goalscorer, the 18-year-old Kluivert, a boy from the suburbs of Amsterdam, is still on an apprentice's contract at a club where the average wage is less than pounds 4,000 a week; Gianluigi Lentini cost Milan pounds 13m from Torino. In addition, the pounds 475,000 Ajax paid for their three "overseas" players - the Finn Jari Litmanen and the Nigerians Kanu and Finidi George - is less than Lentini's wages for three months. It is all the fruit of one of the most innovative club programmes in the world game.

Ajax were forced into a bout of soul-searching a decade ago; it had been a long time since the last of three consecutive European Cups in 1973. On gates of 15,000, unable to pay large transfer fees or wages, how were they to compete again with the nouveau riche? Thanks to progressive coaching, the country, in particular the Amsterdam area, did produce a remarkable number of intelligent players, however, from Johan Cruyff to Marco van Basten, from which the likes of Barcelona and Milan have profited. When they allowed them back, the Dutch national team compiled a record of two World Cup finals and a European Championship, unparalleled in the modern era by a nation of fewer than 15 million people. The answer for Ajax lay in tilling more deeply that same soil.

Now the Ajax academy of excellence has 10 teams, from the age of eight upwards. From an annual application of 1,500 boys, some 40 new ones are chosen. In all, 160 under-17s are on the club's books at any one time. Of the team last Wednesday, this source provided Kluivert, Edwin van der Sar, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids, all under 25.

To these are added young purchases who can still be schooled in the Ajax way, in which the ball is a friend: three at the back and seven advancing when attacking - "like an eagle spread out, all in search of the same thing," said the watching Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager and now a Uefa technical adviser. It is all held together by a versatile midfield player capable of linking, and playing in, both departments. It was this talisman role that persuaded Frank Rijkaard to return from Milan.

The 32-year-old Rijkaard retires after Ajax's home match against Twente Enschede today to concentrate on developing his designer underwear business, having left his former club with little cover. Milan, with only one European Cup to show for their dominance of the Nineties, are now left to compete, along with Manchester United, in the Uefa Cup.

United are one of the more forward-thinking clubs in Britain; under Alex Ferguson they have devoted time and resources to young players and they have been to Amsterdam to study the system. Newcastle United are another, with a similar rich local seam to mine, while Norwich City have had an element of Ajax's sound husbandry in their now sadly interrupted development. Blackburn, too, are cottoning on to a youth policy, trying to ensure that this first flush is not eventually busted.

Kids win you nothing, Alan Hansen and other experienced voices in England are fond of telling us. Well, perhaps not in the bump-and-grind of the Premiership - though four fewer fixtures next season may ease the strain on young limbs - but the European Cup shows that education is not wasted on the young. Besides which, Mr Chairman, kids can save you money.

"It was a triumph for youth," bubbled the fresh-faced Kluivert in English as the deflated Lentini exited behind him, possibly for a shave. "The most important thing is to play with your heart," said the 43-year-old Ajax coach Louis Van Gaal. Even Italy is now tightening its belt, which may be a lesson for an English game now talking up transfer fees to pounds 8.5m in an attempt to spend its Sky-high sums. If there has been any common denominator in this silly season - which will not go away, what with Dennis Wise's appeal to be heard in court, George Graham's case at the FA and Bruce Grobbelaar and company to meet Hampshire police again this summer - it is money.

The beauty of Ajax's example is that long-term success lies in a more enlightened development of talent. If it does not happen here, England may continue to be represented at the European Cup final by nothing more than the Queen anthem "We Are The Champions".