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Nov 25, 2008

Broken schoolboy dreams

At the end of the 1950s a lean, awkward young schoolboy would regularly lurk in the parking lot behind the training ground of Velox, Utrecht's now extinct third professional club playing in the second division.

When coach Daan van Beek was training his keeper, the guy would return stray balls from between the cars. Van Beek started to notice the curved passes were not an accident and asked the youngster at which club he was registered. Nowhere, was the answer. Van Beek contacted his administrator that night and the next day Willem van Hanegem, as it is he, became a member of Velox.

Meanwhile, at Ajax, the small Johan Cruyff would roam around the offices and pitches as his mother was a cleaning lady at the club. There was no question where he would kick his first official ball.

It would take years for words like 'academy' and 'scout' to enter into the world of football. Now the annual turnover of youth training in the Netherlands has passed the €50 million mark. The youth academy of Ajax spends more than €8 million in a season. With transfers like Wesley Sneijder to Real Madrid and Ryan Babel to Liverpool the return on investment looks good.

However, all is not well in the world of schoolboy's dreams. As few of the youth players have contracts, they can go to another club at the end of every season. This has interested the murkier elements in football; the agents. They don't mind spending a windswept afternoon at a game in the premier league of Under-16's if they need to contact the parents of that talented keeper of the away team.

Did they know he has contacts with several clubs in the Premier League, who are always willing to offer a trial period? Would the keeper be helped out with a speedy scooter to drive to training, saving his father to drive the daily traffic-jammed route? Only a signature here and the wheels will go in motion to help their boy to a billionaire's career. When the agent succeeds and lures his protégée to another team or land for an undisclosed fee, the club usually does not earn a penny from this transfer.

PSV Eindhoven has sounded the alarm bells and shut its training grounds for anyone looking like an agent. Other clubs share their worries. The Dutch Football Association supports the cause and lobbies for a European Union rule that prevents players from moving before they are 18 unless there is definite reason.

Why should the Dutch be the unpaid feeder for the big pocketed foreign clubs who come and raid our youth system? Apparently Chelsea has a team of scouts lurking in the bushes to watch hundreds of talents in de Under-19 Premier Division every weekend. Money is not an issue. Each summer many Dutch hopefuls start a new life at the Youth Academy of a Premier League club for an interesting salary. Very, very few will ever succeed.

Going to another country to pursue a big career may be a pipedream for a youngster, but how are the chances for a youth player in Holland? Let's say, for a goalkeeper who went through the ranks of PSV from D to A. Over the last 40 years PSV fielded exactly none of their own youth keepers. Michael Aerts of Willem II is the only one in the Eredivisie this season with a PSV youth history.

And what about strikers? Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a typical product of the Herdgang, PSV's stumping ground for the youth. He went through all the national youth teams and he could not stop scoring in his schooldays. In 2003 he finally made one league appearance in Eindhoven and was subsequently loaned out for the remainder of his contract. Guus Hiddink just did not believe he could make it on the big stage. Heerenveen signed him and delivered him at Ajax 18 months later for almost €10 million.

PSV did sell some strikers in recent years, like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, but they all made their senior debut at other clubs before their arrival in Eindhoven. Few of the forwards, gracing the youth teams at the Herdgang, ever scored his goals in the Philips Stadium as well. That they now have a defender, Dirk Marcellis, and a midfielder, Ibrahim Afellay, in the Dutch national squad is quite unusual.

PSV is not the only club struggling to convert young talent into versatile professionals who can compete at an international level. The Dutch writer Jeroen Siebelink recently wrote a book, De Voetbalbelofte (Football Promise), in which he visited most of the youth academies in the Netherlands. Siebelink looked mostly from a parental perspective and was not hindered by any coaching skills.

Talking with all those coaches left him rather cynical in the book. They all say they know what is best for the kids, but, as he travels from club to club, Seibelink finds out that the methods vary extraordinary.

Even though the Dutch youth academies are rated among the best in the world, they hardly seem to know what they are doing. All 38 professional clubs have one and in each age group they have a squad of 18 players. It is said that in this squad four or five make the required standards, while the rest prop up the numbers to form a team. Of these four or five prospects two turn out to be overrated, one will be injured along the way and another loses interest. The remaining guy has to make the jump to the first team in one fell swoop.

So is the Dutch youth academy a waste of money? Certainly not. It is a safe coaching haven for all those retired pros and a great marketing tool to address the youth in the region.

However, the Dutch FA is planning to concentrate the brightest talent in a restricted number of academies, who will be based at the greater clubs. The brilliant French structure is still one step ahead, but bringing the best regional players in one team seems a good idea. Distributing over the clubs when they come out will be a matter of some heated debates, but they will think of something.

The only drawback is that the unscrupulous scouts and agents from overseas will have even fewer pitches to visit.

While writing this column I wondered whether Van Hanegem and Cruyff would have found their way through the current system. I believe Willem would have struggled to meet the required school performances and that several coaches would have frowned upon his particular style of playing.

The chances for Johan would have depended on whether his trainers had the patience to argue for the whole season on end. Their methods would have been debated on a daily basis. In the end I do believe both would have found a way to bubble up and shine in the Eredivisie. Real class will show itself in the end.

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