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From Justin Kluivert to De Ligt and De Jong: Ajax's Dutch talent factory has reopened

09:00 GMT 13/02/2019
Justin Kluivert Frenkie De Jong Matthijs De Ligt Ajax
The Amsterdam side's famous youth system is churning out top talents once again, but will they ever return to the top of the game?

“I have lifted a European Cup as a player,” Ajax legend and head of player policy Marc Overmars told NRC  this week, “that's what I want as a director.”

Since the break-up of the iconic Champions League-winning team of 1995 that the former winger starred in, Ajax have been desperately trying to claw their way back to relevance on the international stage.

The Amsterdam giants are almost haunted by the memories of the glory achieved with a group of academy graduates such as Frank and Ronald de Boer, Michael Reiziger, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and the final’s 18-year-old winning goalscorer Patrick Kluivert.

Led by coach Louis van Gaal, they went onto reach the final again the following year and the semi-finals in 1997. It is the brightest spell Ajax have had since the legendary status reached in the 1970s, when Johan Cruyff, Sjaak Swart, Piet Keizer and Ruud Krol powered Rinus Michels’ side to three consecutive European triumphs.

The drastic change in the European football landscape in recent decades has witnessed a huge financial gap between the continent’s elite clubs and those trapped below them, making it practically impossible for a team of Ajax’s stature to challenge for a top prize again.

Drifting further away, the best Eredivisie sides have been able to hope for is to survive the group stages of the premier competition. Even that has proved such a gargantuan task that Ajax will make their first appearance in a Champions League knockout tie for 13 years when they host Real Madrid in the first leg of the second round on Wednesday.

After years of plummeting to new lows and despite the glimmer of hope offered by Ajax’s 2017 Europa League final appearance, Dutch football seemed to finally hit rock bottom a year ago. Ajax and PSV had failed to get through their European qualifiers, then Feyenoord crashed out of the group stage with one win and the national team failed to qualify for a third straight major tournament.

But just as it proved the crucial factor in the 1990s, Ajax and all of Netherlands always have one key asset to fall back on. Their knack for producing top quality stars has come to the fore once again and is helping pull the national game back to a respectable level.

Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong have emerged as the top-class talents destined for greatness due to their great impact for their club as well as Ronald Koeman’s resurgent Oranje, but the academy has even more to offer. Donny van de Beek and Noussair Mazraoui have sealed spots in the first team, while budding midfielders Carel Eiting and Dani de Wit have been given playing time. In this season’s Champions League, only Barcelona have used more of their own youth players than the Amsterdam side.

“We want to bring our own players through,” Edwin van der Sar, another former star now leading the club as CEO, told the Guardian in 2017. “That is what people like about Ajax. It’s what they liked in the 70s and the 90s, the way the football was played with Johan Cruyff. Then with Louis van Gaal and Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and the De Boers. We hope to create that again. It’s what people want.”

He continued: “It has intensified in the last five or six years. We have changed the academy and put an even bigger emphasis on training and development hours and facilities and coaches.”

Just as with Ajax, there has been a steady flow of promising players on show throughout the Eredivisie. Steven Bergwijn and Denzel Dumfries are excelling with league leaders PSV, AZ’s superstar attackers Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu look like rare gems, while many more, like Kik Pierie and Mitchell van Bergen are popping up elsewhere.

The Dutch Football Association has every reason to be optimistic as the promising players keep coming, but clubs in Netherlands face the eternal problem of constantly losing their stars at a young age.

Even the triumphant side of the mid-90s was eventually torn apart, but Ajax were able to delay the inevitable exodus for a while. Only Seedorf left immediately after their Champions League victory, Davids and Reiziger were lured away a year later and Kluivert and Overmars departed in 1997. The likes of Van der Sar, Danny Blind and the De Boers stayed until 1999.

Europe’s best are not willing to wait that long anymore before snapping up the best the Dutch have to offer. Less than a year after losing promising winger Justin Kluivert to Roma, Barcelona have already sealed a €75 million deal to land current hottest prospect De Jong in the summer, and De Ligt looks likely to follow him out the door. Meanwhile, Van de Beek is attracting interest from the Premier League.

Even worse, the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have developed a taste for plucking the top talents directly from Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV's academies.

“There is one thing that's very difficult in Netherlands: keeping a team,” Overmars said to NRC . “Players at Barcelona stay for five years, at Ajax, no longer. What energy it cost us to keep the current team together. We had to go through those qualifiers last summer. If that had not gone well then I would have had them here one by one at the door. And even if you manage that, then you know it’s only for one year.

“You get to the [Europa League] final, but can you continue with that? No. The team falls apart, key players leave. I have made peace with that. Because I know how it is at Ajax, you cannot build on the longer term."

While fulfilling Overmars' dream of winning the Champions League as a director at Ajax will prove a very difficult - if not impossible - task, at least he can be happy that the Amsterdam side and Dutch football are once again producing prodigious talents. And Real Madrid will get to witness that first hand on Wednesday.