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*Main photo: Jany van der Veen is standing in the back row, fifth from the left

Many remember the great Ajax team that dominated the 1970s and the legendary Dutch side that created, developed then demonstrated their own brand of football on the grandest stage. Many privilege Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff to be the smartest footballing minds in the history of the sport – and they have a great claim too, but what many fail to realise is how these great minds were nurtured right from a very young age so that they could implement their qualities in the future and create legacies in the sport that will last forever.

“Then, in 1971, we won the European Cup for the first time, and won it the next two years as well. So, within six years Ajax had gone from being an average club to the best team in the world. And what was the secret? It was simple – it was a combination of talent, technique and discipline, which were all things that we had been working on at Ajax, even before Rinus Michels had arrived”

The above extract istaken from Johan Cruyff’s autobiography, which released following the fabled Dutchman’s sad demise in March 2016. He spends Chapter 3 of the well-worded book describing his successes at the Amsterdam giants, and in prior pages describes how he and his Ajax peers were honed to be efficacious in the future. A common entry in the early part of his book was a man who went by the name of Jany van der Veen, a person who only sounds like an “extraneous somebody” at first due to the fact that his career took off and ended so long ago, but his impact makes him so much more than that. And that impact isn’t limited to just the glory days of Ajax; it still runs through the corridors of the Amsterdam ArenA.

Jany van der Veen is the man often credited with discovering the legend that turned out to become Cruyff. The young star was just 10-years-old when he was spotted by van der Veen in the streets of Betondorp and he took the young man under his wing and trained him to become what he is regarded as today. Van der Veen humbly rejects the praise he receives for that act, simply stating: “Cruyff didn’t need a discoverer, only someone who arranged his affairs. He was a godsend.”

The story of how he found Cruyff is special. Van der Veen always peeked out of his window where he would often observe a young Cruyff challenge and take on the bigger kids. Such was the quality of Cruyff from a young age that he was convinced to bump him straight into the club, rather than go through the usual obligation of having to provide him a trial. In an interview with Dutch publication Het Parool, he recalls Cruyff’s intelligence in a simple manner: “He always played football with the older boys, and he bossed them. It seemed like he was fused with the ball.”

Read  |  ‘That was Cruyff’: how a legend changed the game

Born Adriaan Hendrik Willem van der Veen in 1917, Ajax is the only club he was ever associated with. He started off with the Dutch giants in 1939, while the Second World War was just beginning. He was a member of the side during the Holocaust years, when sporting competition had deteriorated all over the world and several players were asked to represent their countries out on a battlefield rather than the green version they played football on.

Ajax were going through a tough patch at the time, with the war taking its toll on the club. Coach Jack Reynolds, the visionary who laid the foundations for Total Football, was arrested by the Germans in June 1940 due to his British nationality and that affected the club’s on-field performances. However, during the war years, van der Veen would hold a key role in the side. He netted his first goals for the club in the 1942-43 season and was an important midfielder in the side as football was making its way back into the minds of people recovering from the war.

Success started to follow after the war had come to an end  as Ajax went on to win the league and the KNVB Cup in 1947, where van der Veen played every game and was a major asset to the side as they looked to rebuild. In the following season, he was once again an ever-present figure in the team, except this time he wasn’t rewarded with anything for his efforts. But at the time, injuries couldn’t be treated as well as they are today, and van der Veen had to hang up his boots in next campaign after 150 appearances and three goals, with his final game for the club being against SVV on 24 October 1948.

Along the middle of his career, he came across a young footballer who went by the name of Rinus Michels, and following his retirement, the two would pair up again to help revolutionise the sport and create one of the greatest ideologies in football. His association with Ajax continued even after he decided to call it a day, and was often seen training the players across various youth levels at the club.

It was in this phase that van der Veen unearthed Cruyff for the world to see, and it was here that the young Ajax minds were trained to become the players and humans that they would become. Football teaches a person several things, many of it being off the pitch, and Ajax’s academy is well known for its innovation and respect towards the game as well as life in general, and the contributions of van der Veen can take huge credit for that. As Cruyff himself says in his book, “When I was at the Ajax youth team at the age of 12, Jany van der Veen trained me not only in football, but also in norms and values. He was the first person at Ajax who taught me always to choose a particular course and follow it. He was the perfect example of how the Ajax life was one that compensated for the education that I wouldn’t be getting at school.”

Read  |  How Amsterdam changed the world of football forever

Modern era football doesn’t have the same brutality as football in the 1960s and ‘70s and that is a testament to the quality of the officiating, but in football, the technological and infrastructural improvements have made it harder for younger players to become better, or even equally as good, as their predecessors. Football is no longer taught the hard way with a rising quantity of football pitches stealing the choice of having young kids playing in the streets. Playing in the streets, even when alone, teaches young footballers the ability to stay on their feet while trying to get the ball past a defender and van der Veen’s methods embodied everything a young footballer should be learning.

There’s a reason why the Dutch produce technically-gifted footballers at a greater rate than most others. Take Jon Townsend’s 10,000 touches piece for example, where he describes how completing the drill once a day for at least six days a week could help footballers of a similar age group match the quality of their Dutch compatriots. It’s activities like these that Jany van der Veen focused on, helping young kids get time on the ball whether on the pitch or off it, and that is what made him such a great developer of raw talent. He made sure that training sessions were always coupled with heavy use of the ball, building one’s abilities in five basic essentials of the game: shooting, heading, dribbling, passing and controlling.

Jany van der Veen spent all his career following his retirement developing players, and his partnership with Rinus Michels in the 1960s, who was now at the helm of the first team, helped Ajax win the European Cup for three consecutive years between 1971 and 1973 with names like Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, Piet Keizer and Wim Suurbrier amongst others. All of them were keen followers of van der Veen’s methods and that was a major contributing factor to the dynasty that the club formed.

His aptitude was such that, even at the age of 68, in 1985, Johan Cruyff, now himself the manager of the Amsterdam club, appointed van der Veen to be the chief scout at the club, and his last batch of discoveries would include Aron Winter, John Bosman and a certain Pitbull – Edgar Davids. He inspired several generations of footballers, many who would go on to be world beaters, not only for Netherlands and Ajax, but for the best clubs around the planet.

Following his death in December 2001 at the age of 84 after a battle with Alzheimer’s, his legacy was cemented with Ajax forming the Jany van der Veen tournament for youth footballers. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who had been so effective for the club for over five decades 

By Karan Tejwani    @karan_tejwani26