Perhaps this is a leap of logic — a thin correlation between two items that aren’t quite related. Maybe so. But when you look at Dutch soccer today, it’s easy to spot two things that, related or not, have gone wrong.
First: The Netherlands national team is an utter mess, now looking less likely to make a Euro field that seems to be welcoming everyone else on the continent.
Second: How is the vaunted Ajax academy doing today?
On a message board I frequent (for local parents), someone recently dug up a 5-year-old NYT profile of Ajax as a frightening example of what happens when professional goals go overboard. The whole experience seemed devoid of joy, compassion and all the things you would hope every teenager has a chance to experience — particularly when they’re playing a game that is supposed to be full of joy, not a rote exercise in doing the same bloody thing over and over like you’re in a 1980s Eastern European rhythmic gymnastics barracks.
One comment from the board: “Yeah, my reaction to that article was that I’m fine not having a champion MNT if that’s the way you have to go to get it.”
My memory might be hazy, but was Ajax always that way? I thought it used to be considered intense but also a place of wonder, where creative geniuses met like some sort of Algonquin Roundtable of Total Football.
Maybe Total Football has given way to rigid tactics and player roles? Or have we stopped viewing our kids as kids and started seeing them as people to cast off or sell to keep a corporate operation moving?
Even when kids emerge as the rare few to succeed at a high level from such places, they have regrets. See Steven Gerrard’s poignant comments about wishing he had devoted more effort to his education. (And bravo, Mr. Gerrard, for speaking up so honestly.)
Then let’s look at the USA for a minute. We’ve gotten more serious over the years, haven’t we? We have Development Academies. We’re telling kids not to play college soccer or even high school soccer. And we’re getting skunked.
In the New Era, we herd our kids into camps and soccer-specific residencies so they can develop away from the public eye. Meanwhile, college soccer continues to offer experiences like this:
Those kids will never forget that moment. And it’ll help some of them develop a sense of joy (or, on the flip side, a sense of mental toughness) you’re not going to develop playing for a bunch of dudes with clipboards.
Surely it’s time to strike a balance, yes? Maybe we’ll figure it out before the Netherlands do and pass them in the FIFA rankings!