Ajax's reputation for developing quality players is paramount. The system by which players are developed, from youth to full professionals, is the number one subject of interest among fans of Ajax in America. The epicenter of that development effort is Ajax's own youth academy, De Toekomst, in the shadow of the Arena in Amsterdam
The man currently at the helm of De Toekomst, the Director of Youth Development at Ajax, is former Ajax player (and former Feyenoord youth coach) Kees Zwamborn. We had a chance to talk with Mr. Zwamborn in April of 2001 at De Toekomst.
A note about language: Kees strikes me as a highly analytical and intellectual guy. In our interview, I found that his English could not keep pace with the subtle ideas and concepts he tries to convey. However, rather than rephrase on his behalf (and in doing so running the risk of misinterpreting his message) I decided to print his answers verbatim.
Ajax USA: What are the things that you look for -- that Ajax looks for -- in a young, talented player? What are the things that catch your eye?
Zwamborn: Well we have one word, and we call it TIPS. The T is for "technique," what you can do with the ball. I is for "intelligence," tactics. You can read the game. P is for personality -- the P is very important. It's difficult to scout when you are a very young player. It's difficult to see. Because when you come here and you must be a grown-up player, it's a very hard way, so you have to be a fighter, a winner. Very very important, but difficult to see when you are a kid of seven years old.
And the S is for speed, because in the play of Ajax it is important, not only speed like in the running of 100 meters, but also it is very important that you are fast with the ball. Why? Because we are playing -- it's one of the most important things of our system -- we almost are playing on the part of the opponent (draws a diagram on a notepad of a soccer field, and sketches triangles within the opponent's half of the field), in a little space, so we have to be fast with the ball. We have to be technical, and fast.
Ajax USA: It seems that Ajax 1 right now is not terribly big, tall and of great strength. Do you think that's not important compared to other things, or do you think that's something that's lacking?
Zwamborn: Well, mostly in the development program, (we see players who are) very technical, very tactical, very fast. When you look at those players, it's very difficult to be a big guy, because the one and the other is very difficult. So, in the past, Ajax have always bought defenders. I played here for four years, and I was a defender. So Ajax had to buy strong players.
I think, and we think -- the whole organization -- the last few years that it's very important to look for good defenders, too. So we have to look a little bit different to young players, because we also need good defenders. Strong people. So, the real (big and) talented players like Kluivert, he's an exception. Bergkamp, Davids, Seedorf, Overmars, Bryan Roy, playing for NAC -- not little, not tall... but very durable.
And so when you see van der Meyde (draws a circle around the P) -- that's the problem. P is a very big problem. And van der Meyde, he has everything ... he's fast, he's strong, he can play out to the corner very well, with a very good center (cross). But (taps the P) that's the problem.
It's a thing that's not only hard to describe, but it's hard to develop, as well. You have to wonder if you can train P. When you don't have the P in your body, in your brain, then it's very difficult. And it's a problem... It's the most difficult thing when you are developing players, because you say, "Ah, they are young, they can learn a lot." But when we have difficulty with their behavior, it's of course hard to send them away when they are little boys. When do you say goodbye to them? Which age?
Ajax USA: But you only have a limited number of spaces, right? You have to say goodbye to some.
Zwamborn: Yes, but it's difficult to bring new talent in when they are older than, well, thirteen years because of the system in Holland. When they are thirteen, fourteen years, they are not playing in the amateurs anymore -- they are playing here, or Vitesse, or AZ, or Feyenoord. It's difficult to scout them. So we have to buy them. So you can scout players under twelve, but after, it's very difficult.
In Holland, we have a rather unique system. We call it "the pyramid". (Draws a pyramid and divides it into thirds: upper, middle, lower.) Because in Holland, you can play football from six years old, because we have a lot of amateur teams in Holland. And everywhere you can play football.
So we have a big base, where we can find players. And we start with six years old. We can look at six years old, very early. We can train and play, so we can start playing early, to look for the system we are playing at Ajax. That's very important. We can start very, very young.
Ajax USA: And what is your best method for finding players? Do you take recommendations from youth coaches? I know there's Talent Day, but I assume that's of low value.
Zwamborn: Yeah, Talent Days is only a little bit of the scouting. Because, the best players of that age are already known here. How we are doing it? We have scouts, who are looking in these clubs Saturday, going to watch games of the little ones. So we have a lot of scouts who are looking, watching.
Ajax USA: How many are there?
Zwamborn: Scouts? About ... maybe 30. All over Holland, our people are getting tips (on players). And then of course, we have our Talent Days, but that is more of a ... well, it's more for the name of Ajax. We have a lot of kids here, and it gives them a nice day.
Ajax USA: So I know that you were involved in the youth development at Feyenoord. I wonder if there are any distinguishing differences?
Zwamborn: That was a long time ago (smiles). It was ... 18 years ago. And you can't compare it, because I trained the B1's and we hadn't the competition we have now, a competition over the whole country. And the training, well it was not the same; it was not so professional as it is now.
Ajax USA: Is the TIPS system the same across all clubs, or is it something especially for Ajax?
Zwamborn: Well, we started with it. I think, other clubs don't call it TIPS, but I think a lot of it is the same.
Ajax USA: But the prejudice of people is that Ajax is for technique, skill, high speed, and Feyenoord is more of a hard-working team. That's what the history always says. Is there the same emphasis on skills and technique in Feyenoord youth? Are they looking for bigger guys or harder workers than Ajax?
Zwamborn: It's a kind of philosophy. Like Ajax and Feyenoord -- every club has its own culture. It's our culture -- we love to play good football and we love to play a certain kind of football, and Feyenoord also, but a little bit different, I think. Different people, different culture.
Ajax USA: Let me ask about the different levels of youth in your program. Is it right that you have a seven and eight year old level?
Zwamborn: A through E. (Sketches the age brackets on notepad.) E is "Under-10" -- 8 till 10. And next year we are starting with one team earlier... "Under-8."
Ajax USA: And there are two teams at each level?
Zwamborn: Yeah. The youngest we start with is "Under 8".
Ajax USA: And that age will be down as low as... ?
Zwamborn: Six. Six or seven. We are starting now (currently) with 8-10. And next year, we are starting with one team younger. But every amateur club is starting here, or even five years old. But when you see the E-1, that's under 10, I think that is a very, very talented group. Amazing how they are playing. The kind of playing is not different than the playing of adults. So, so good. The only thing they can't do is to give long passes over 50 meters.
So, you can see that you are born with talent, because they are so smart. Nobody told them. The most difficult thing is ... when you have one or two (possible) solutions, the very difficult thing is to choose the right (option); that's hard to learn. Because you have to read the game very well.
Ajax USA: Is there a certain age by which there's no point in trying to learn?
Zwamborn: Well, I think when you are between the ages of nine to eleven, it's very important to learn things. And when they are playing in the street or little clubs, and they are very talented, it's possible to be a great talent. I think that it doesn't happen anymore because, when you are in that age, and that good, a lot of clubs are coming to you and saying "Come and play with us."
Ajax USA: But would it be theoretically possible that a kid does not play football until 12 years old, and then makes it into Ajax 1?
Zwamborn: Of course it's possible. Why not? Because when he is playing in the street he is also learning. It's very important to learn when you are very susceptible to new things. So when he is playing in the streets... it has to do with experience. It's no need that he is playing at Ajax or Feyenoord ... but when you are coming to Ajax or Feyenoord you are put into a situation where you can learn a lot. To play with a ball, to learn techniques, etc.
Ajax USA: Why has Ajx decided to start working with an "F" (under-8) team?
Zwamborn: Well, we need an F team because we are starting with the E team now, and so you need to scout "F" kids. So why not start with a team? We do this already. Normally, they train once a week here, and they played in their own teams or clubs. And now we said, "Why not start a year younger and start with an F team?" Why not? And there is a lot of talent there, so maybe in 1 or 2 years we have 2 or 3 teams, when there is enough quality. Not quantity, but quality.
Ajax USA: What do you do for the families and the parents, especially when you bring a young child? Obviously, you change the child's life because you're adding to his schedule, and taking him on a bus every day. Do you offer any explanation or counseling for the families, to say "This is how we work with you."?
Zwamborn: Yes, of course. We are starting with a meeting day for the parents, to tell them what we are doing. What are the rules, what they can do and can't do as parents. You can watch the training and the (games), but don't "imuye" (Dutch word), don't interfere. Come along, it's okay, but don't interfere. We don't accept it. And we tell them that when the kid's here, he is ours. You are very important, the most important people are the parents, but when they are here, we are the boss.
Ajax USA: What about academics? Do you have tutoring or anything? If a boy is a great football player, but because of his involvement with Ajax he is struggling in school?
Zwamborn: Well, from 8 until 12 (years of age), they are training late in the afternoon, and the parent has to bring the kid here. And they are in their own school. So we try to find kids who are not too far from Amsterdam, so their parents can bring them. They can stay in their own school. Because we think it's very important, their own friends and their family.
From 12 until 18 we pick them up from school. They can leave school earlier; for instance, at half past 1, they come here. And then they eat, they have to study, and they have to train. These rooms here (gestures to several classrooms) are for studying. (He shows us a schedule on the wall, with each age group rotating between the various training facilities, the study halls, and the lunch room.)
So for instance, if somebody lives in Utrecht, we pick up all the people in Utrecht and take them to Amsterdam. Maybe 6 or 7 kids. From different ages and from all different teams. So we look where they are living, and we make our route.
Ajax USA: So the big guys ride with the little guys.
Ajax USA: So I have to ask this question: What about America? You know that there is a lot of raw athletic ability and a lot of desire, but not a lot of infrastructure in America. Is there any interest? Do you have scouts there? Is there any plan in the future to look at talent from the United States?
Zwamborn: Maybe in the future. But you know at the moment we have two alliances in Africa -- Ajax Cape Town, we own them. And in Ghana, Ashantes Goldfields. We have them for five years, to look for talent in Africa. So I think it's impossible to look to the United States now. Because we have a lot of work to make things work in Africa.
But I don't know what we will be doing in two years, but it's possible that we don't continue it, because there are a lot of problems when you are coming to Africa. So, I think we are concentrating now more on "Euro" places, like before. Like Scandinavia.
And, well, maybe United States is interesting. That's the problem, that there is no infrastructure, because, where do you have to look? Where do you have to scout?
When you are starting something up, you have to start with good coaches, and good programs, and then good people. If you have to (teach) the people there how to coach, you don't succeed. It's too long. So then you have to bring in very good people, and they can train, and coach good coaches. 'See, he's a good coach, he can learn, he sees the game.' So, it's not that easy. And at the moment, I know we are going easy now, because we are in Africa.
We have now a very talented American boy.
Ajax USA:Yes, John O'Brien.
Zwamborn: No no no, another one. Probably he is coming now. Because he has been in Amsterdam from his eighth year. Every day to us, training, and stayed with one of the coaches. And now I think he is 12 or 13.
Ajax USA: So his Dutch is good?
Zwamborn: No no no, he is here for two weeks every year. But we are intending to bring him, because he wants it so badly, and he is getting older, and he is aware that the program in America -- you said yourself -- is very bad. So, he's very good, very good. And a very nice boy.
Ajax USA: Can we know his name?
Zwamborn: Well, you'll have to wait. (Smiles)
Ajax USA: What part of the States? Los Angeles?
Zwamborn: Yes, I think so.