Dutch football is changing. Following the dismal qualification campaign for the now mostly-forgotten (everywhere except Portugal and the Netherlands) 2016 European Championships, the big wigs in Holland came together to find a solution.
PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord academy chiefs decided that they, as the clubs in retention of the most talented players, would come together more often and play a greater degree of fixtures against each other, thus improving the exposure to competitiveness for their youngsters. “We need to keep players in the country for longer too,” the room declared. “Okay,” Ajax answered, “we’ll create a mentoring scheme within our body of coaches. Each coach will be responsible for five players and will visit their homes weekly to become friends of the family. If they (the supremely talented, but potentially mercenary youngsters) grow to love the club, they won’t want to leave.” PSV agreed. “What about the mentality? Our players are spoiled. They don’t understand how to win,” Feyenoord interjected.
They had, throughout conversations, remained mostly quiet, but on this issue they had to speak. “It is about building up resilience throughout their time in our youth academy,” director Damien Hertog told the room (and would reiterate to me some months later). “During training sessions, we rarely whistle for a foul. We tell them not to moan and to just carry on. We play to win in competitions.”
Feyenoord also give forfeits to losing youngsters. The day of my visit, in the canteen, two under-16 players, who had lost in a session, were serving food to the rest of the squad. They hated it and wouldn’t want to lose again.
I had met Hertog at Feyenoord’s Varkenoord complex. Rasmus Ankersen, in his book The Goldmine Effect, described environments where exceptional talent is developed. In the sandy village of Bekoji, Ethiopia, he found the best middle-distance runners in the world. Similarly, in Iten, Kenya, he found a village home to outstanding long-distance runners. In Kingston, Jamaica, where Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt practice, was a hard dry field, a jaded grass track and some rusty weights outside a shed. What talent requires, Ankersen discovered, is an environment that fosters determination.
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Varkenoord is football’s goldmine. In the shadow of De Kuip – that corrugated iron monster – Varkenoord sits, sharing its gates with a car garage and a small littered stream. It is open to the general public (and ducks) and has moss growing through paving slabs in places. Initially, Varkenoord appears to be a collection of Sunday league pitches, but for a scattering of Opel sponsorship boards.
There are, in fact, 19 different training pitches of various sizes. On one pitch, as I arrived, a group of local teenagers in black hoodies were having a kickabout until a lone security guard negotiated them away. Equipment is kept inside rusty containers with faded Feyenoord badges painted on. ‘Hand in hand’ reads the message underneath. It’s impossible not to be charmed by it all.
The furthest pitch from the entrance, where the first team trains, has five vertical lines painted on it. They section the field so players can tactically see where numerical overloads are happening. Yet even the first team pitch has to be reached by a concrete mossy path. “When it rains here, the path to the training session is flooded,” coach Glenn van der Kraan told me. “I see dads coming from work in their best suits and shoes and they have to walk through mud. Yes we laugh, but it is what makes this club special.”
There are no indoor facilities either. “We go to the beach and run in the rain with the wind in our faces. It develops them as people,” says van der Kraan. When it hails, the groundsmen lay grit on the floor, “but we have grit in our hearts too.”
When Feyenoord drew with Ajax in mid-October 2016 to go 10 games unbeaten, they did so as the club most in-tune with the requirements needed to make Holland great again. Amsterdam droomt, Rotterdam werken, the Dutch say: Amsterdam dreams, Rotterdam works.
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It was obvious to those who watched the Netherlands fall flimsily short in 2015 that they needed players willing to work, not dream. “Our spectators and the people who live in Rotterdam know what it means to work hard and to get an income,” Damien Hertog says. He is from here and understands the social fabric of the city. “If you work hard for 90 minutes and fight for every inch on the pitch, then the spectators appreciate that the most. If you don’t, they won’t accept you. The fans want to see a team fighting and playing for each other, not as individuals.
“We say ‘hand in hand’ at the club – it is something that Feyenoord stands for. It is the culture of the club and we have to bring this culture into our young players and then we talk about attributes that we have to develop, which is obviously the technical, mental, physical and tactical part.”
Rotterdam has a tough, working-class population. The city is home to the largest port in Europe, which was bombed to the ground by the Luftwaffe during World War Two. Local survivors rebuilt it. There is a strong civic pride here, an insularity built up over the years. While passing trams and cycle lanes, beside tulips of every colour, make Rotterdam look like a typically Dutch city, it is not. Many port cities hold a cultural tension with their nation – think Naples, Barcelona and Glasgow – and Rotterdam is no different.
Ironically, the player who most represents Rotterdam values is an outsider: Dirk Kuyt. Raised in the windy seaside town of Katwijk in southern Holland, a world away from containerisation, Kuyt grew up pure. He dieted on fish and milk and saw how hard the people in the town worked (he would have been a sailor were it not for football).
Kuyt knows the value of hard-work and, as a result, finds himself as the captain of a Feyenoord side on the up. Besides that, he is the current golden boy of Dutch football. Given his appearance and technique, and the Dutch habit of romanticising Johan Cruyff-like flair, it is somewhat ironic how much they revere him.
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Football is historically a brutally masculine sport, so players of Kuyt’s ilk have always retained a soft spot in fans’ heart. Yet it is not for his football skills that the Dutch love him. They do so because he has returned. In a bygone era, players would leave to win trophies abroad, usually at Milan or Barcelona, but would always come back to help nurture the next generation of talent. Johan Cruyff did so for Ruud Gullit in 1983; Frank Rijkaard for Dennis Bergkamp in 1993; even Edgar Davids for Wesley Sneijder in 2006. Now, however, with the decline of the Eredivisie, Dutch internationals don’t want to come home, with the most prominent examples in recent times being Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart and Clarence Seedorf
Kuyt came back and is loved. “Dirk is 36 years of age and has played two World Cups and one World Cup final. He has won a lot of trophies and has gained a lot of big achievements in his career. There is nobody who can explain to a young guy why he shouldn’t work as hard in training as Kuyt – he is a really good role model,” Hertog says.
At Feyenoord they promote a buddy system that begins with Kuyt. “You need kids who are 18 coming through and getting advice from players who are 30 and have been and had great careers.” That system trickles down to the youth divisions, with under-7 left-wingers being coupled up with under-12 left-wingers and receiving advice from them on how to improve their game. It promotes ownership and leadership.
Tonny Vilhena, Terence Kongolo and Rick Karsdorp, academy graduates who have made the step up to the national team, had all developed as buddies, whilst Jordy Clasie, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Leroy Fer, Daryl Janmaat and Gini Wijnaldum have all benefitted from the gritty development techniques and reinforced messages of hard work and sacrifice given during Damien Hertog’s time as Academy Director. Those dreamers in Amsterdam and beyond now need Feyenoord of Rotterdam, a club once again on the rise thanks to its academy, to make the orange shirt brilliant again.
By Dan Fieldsend. Follow @europegamebook