Football: Grassroots focus wins applause from Ajax duo

Ajax youth coach Casimir Westerveld watching the performance of children from the ActiveSG Football Academy yesterday.
Ajax youth coach Casimir Westerveld watching the performance of children from the ActiveSG Football Academy yesterday.PHOTO: SPORT SINGAPORE

Despite being a mere 14 months old, the ActiveSG Football Academy has already won praise for its grassroots system.

"If you want to grow elite players, the first thing you need is numbers, so therefore I think this is a great programme," said Ajax Amsterdam Youth Academy coordinating coach Corne Groenendijk, 45.

"It's very valuable to do this. If you wait at the national team for players to arrive, it's never going to happen. You need to start at the grassroots."

Groenendijk and fellow Ajax coach Casimir Westerveld were in town yesterday to share Ajax's coaching philosophies with the ActiveSG Football Academy.

The Ajax youth academy is famous for its alumni, boasting graduates across the generations such as the late Johan Cruyff, Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp, former Ajax, AC Milan and Barcelona star Patrick Kluivert and more recently Christian Eriksen, who plays for English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur.

Four-time European champions Ajax notably fielded the youngest team to ever feature in a major European final against Manchester United during last week's Europa League final which they lost 0-2 to the English giants. Academy graduate Matthijs de Ligt, 17, was in their starting XI, which had an average of 22 years and 282 days.

Groenendijk, who was also the Netherlands youth team coach from 1998 to 2011, explained that a strong coaching tradition helps the country churn out talent constantly.

"There is good coaching quality where a lot of coaches have played before (Bergkamp is coaching at Ajax now), so history tends to repeat itself, and a combination of these factors makes it (churning out talent) strong."

While praising the ActiveSG set-up, he noted that the Singapore academy had a huge challenge on its hands because of the country's short footballing history and the coaches' relative inexperience, which could prove a potential stumbling block.

"It's very difficult here to find facilities to play," he said. "The history of football is not as big as with us (the Netherlands), so the coaching history is maybe also less, but it's good to start with the grassroots, you need it.

"Once you are in that system, you are part of that system. Let's say you're an American dad. Maybe you'll bring your boy to baseball, or if you're an Indian parent, maybe you'll (get your child to) play cricket first."

The ActiveSG academy is led by former Singapore international Aleksandar Duric, and has seven training centres established across the island. The academy has two groups for those aged six to 12, and 12 to 17. It has 820 players in total.

Duric, 46, said: "It's eye-opening to see how one of the biggest clubs run their academy.

"They're like a factory churning out talent and it's our hope that we can work closer together. We want to build on our foundation and make this academy like one big family."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'Grassroots focus wins applause from Ajax duo'. Print Edition | Subscribe