This article was originally published on January 30th, 2019.
As the January transfer window is set to come to an end, a lot of attention this month has gone to Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong (@DeJongFrenkie21).
A lot of media attention speculated, on which European superpower will secure his much-coveted signature.
The 21-year-old also had an offer on the table from French giants Paris Saint-Germain; Italian champions Juventus and English champions Manchester City. However, de Jong decided to turn down the riches of clubs who are more or less backed by entire countries.
Deciding to accept a 5 year deal with Barcelona instead. The Catalonia side going on pay Ajax, an initial €75m ($86m) for his services. Ajax stands to make another €11m in add-ons if de Jong succeeds at Camp Nou.
"De Jong is one of Europe's most promising midfield talents," Barcelona said in a statement. "At just 21 years of age, he is joining the club after proving himself as a multifunctional player with an excellent reading of the game and the ability to provide the killer pass."
This deal could see de Jong become one of Dutch soccer's greatest ever players.
Richer clubs coveting Ajax's talent is nothing new. It dates back to Johan Cruyff, who eventually moved to Barcelona, in 1973.
Followed by other academy graduates Marco van Basten (@MarcoVanBasten), Patrick Kluivert (@PatrickKluivert), Edwin van der Sar (@vdsar1970), Wesley Sneijder (@sneijder101010), Christian Eriksen (@ChrisEriksen8) and many more. Not only is their academy impressive, so too is their eye for signing low-profile foreign talent, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic (@Ibra_official) and Luis Suarez (@LuisSuarez9), and developing them into superstars.
For most clubs, losing stars like these can often lead to failure. However, for Ajax selling young prospects to richer clubs is the club's business model. Develop the next generation of stars and sell them to help fund the next wave, making the process self-sustainable.
The club's youth academy is central to this business model. The academy called De Toekomst ("The Future") consists of twelve well-maintained playing fields and a two-story building that features numerous locker rooms, tutorial rooms, gyms and offices for coaches and sports scientists. Many of the coaches having donned the 'Oranje' jersey, of the Dutch national team, during their career.
Every Ajax side, from the under-9s through to the first team, train at De Toekomst. The idea of the next challenge being only one field away is schooled into players. Talent is rewarded with opportunity and progression. This carries on through to the first team and each year the academy offers up another future superstar to the first team.
The facility also has a school where the under-14s to under-19s receive their education.
"We need to develop individual players so every player within our academy has his own individual plan to make the steps needed to finally get into the first team," said Casimir Westerveld, head of youth recruitment at Ajax. "We use our [academy] team more or less not to win games, but to try to develop as many individual players as possible."
A great example of this is the current Ajax captain, Matthijs de Ligt. The 19-year-old defender, valued at €70m ($78.5m) is another prospect being tracked by some of Europe's richest clubs.
De Ligt has been at Ajax since he was 9 years old and passed through each level to make his first-team debut at 17. Even scoring in his debut, making him the club's second-youngest goalscorer. Furthermore, he would set the record of becoming the youngest player ever to play in a European Final, at 17 years and 285 days old.
Despite all the attention De Ligt is receiving, Ajax fans are not concerned if he does move on. As there is such confidence in the Amsterdam academy, that they know they will be able to produce another player to step into the void. Although losing a superstar is hardly ideal, the club has made sure that it is not a make-or-break situation.
"It's hard to compete with PSG, Man City as they have plenty of money," said John Heitinga (@Johnheitinga), Ajax's under-19 manager. "We have to do it with our academy, it's our product. Our youngsters are playing the same as the first team - that's the Ajax DNA."
There are plans at De Toekomst, to expand to 17 fields and update the facilities, including a 3,000-capacity stadium where Jong Ajax and the under-19s will play.
To soccer fans throughout the world, Ajax often stands for "Total Football." A style of play that the Amsterdam side made famous in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.
Led by soccer genius Johan Cruyff, Ajax emphasized quick-passing and even quicker offensive transitions, with players moving fluidly all over the field.
The "Total Football" philosophy was rewarded in the '70s. With Ajax winning 3 consecutive European Cup trophies, between 1971 and 1973.
In 1973, Ajax would see their"Total Football" pioneer leave to join Barcelona. Where Cruyff would go on to share the philosophy with the Catalan club. Helping build one of the biggest clubs in modern-day soccer.
The philosophy was even taken on by the Dutch national team. During the '70s, Cruyff would lead the Oranje to two World Cup finals, in 1974 and '78.
As the facility offers young players a private education to go along with the seven training sessions a week. With the understanding that progression is available on the next field. There is no wonder the club is successful.
De Ligt says "It's the mentality of improving every day, becoming better every day and the discipline to do that. That's what you see here."
Young players coming through the ranks are taught to view the sport as a way of aiding their overall development and maturity and hence players who fail to make the cut also end up benefitting from the general experience on offer.
Eighty percent of the young players who make it from under-16 to under-19 level will go on to become professional soccer players.
There are currently more De Toekomst graduates in Europe's top divisions than from any other team. 77 Ajax youths now ply their trade across Europe's top leagues. Compare this to the top English club, Manchester United, who only has thirty-seven graduates playing across Europe's top leagues.
In an ideal world, Ajax and their fans would love to keep the team together and not let players leave. However, with Ajax there comes limitations, playing in the Dutch Eredivisie is a major part of the issue.
The club's annual budget is in the region of $114m. To put this into perspective, this would put Ajax close to the bottom of the English Premier sides.
Add the key income for most professional sports teams, television revenue. Eredivisie teams share €1.04 billion over ten years, this is less than the English Premier League teams share over one season.
All of this equates to Ajax not being able to compete with the wages on offer in England, Germany, Spain, or Italy.
Even if Ajax were able to offer players the same financial packages, as the other leagues, they also have to compete against ambition. Players want to test themselves against the best of the world and this standard is not available in the Eredivisie.
"We have our philosophy, players, city, stadium and history... we have a lot of things going on, but we play in a small league," CEO Edwin Van der Sar says. "We don't have to sell them, but at a certain point for the player's development, I've seen that myself as well, you think you're ready, you want to compete against better, world class players, and unfortunately they're not playing in Holland."
Ajax fans are used to seeing the youth coming through and something that has become part of the club culture. Van der Sar stated "That's what our supporters want, also. They want to see players they have an affinity with. They follow them from the academy: They see them at 11, 15, and then they see him make a debut, and that's what our supporters like."
This is even encapsulated in the goodbyes when academy graduates move on.
Heitinga's final match in 2008 was marked by supporters turning one side of the stadium into a mural of him. When Van der Sar left for Juventus in 1999, he had a send-off at the City Hall where 400 or so fans turned up, complete with fireworks, to wish him well.
De Ligt and other graduates grow up with this culture and they genuinely love the club's history, embracing the weight of nostalgia rather than palming it off. "They won the Champions League, so they are like heroes here," De Ligt says of Van der Sar. "We also want to be heroes here for the crowd, for ourselves, for the people in Amsterdam and we want to achieve as much as possible. For me, I want to play as many big games, good games and that's something I can achieve here at Ajax."
"This place means a lot to me," De Ligt says. "I grew up here. I came here when I was 9 years old. At Ajax you learn to win every game, to be at your best every game, and it doesn't matter who your opponent is. It's in my blood."