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How the Feyenoord Academy revolution brought Netherlands’ World Cup success

With 11 former and current Feyenoord players in Netherlands’ squad for the World Cup, including nine Academy graduates, the club from Rotterdam had a massive influence on the surprisingly good performance of Oranje in Brazil. But why did so many players coming through the youth ranks of the Dutch giants make it to the World Cup? Mark Lievisse Adriaanse reports on the silent revolution in the south of Rotterdam.

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in April when Martin van Geel, director of football at Dutch giants Feyenoord, looked to his right at general director Eric Gudde and nodded. On his face grew a smile of pride. Then, his hands started clapping and his smile got even bigger.

In front of him, 17-year-old Gustavo Hamer had just scored a thrilling goal against Vitesse Under 17s. Taking the ball from his own half, Hamer, adopted from Brazil and who sometimes uses the football name ‘Guga’, had dribbled passed three rival players, before lobbing the ball over the opposition goalkeeper.

Earlier that week, Hamer had signed his first professional contract at Feyenoord, together with his U17 teammate Jari Schuurman (named after Finnish Ajax striker Jari Litmanen) and U19 left back Stef Gronsveld. That afternoon, Van Geel knew he was correct to sign them, with Schuurman and Hamer taking their team by the hand to a 3-0 victory, almost securing the championship in the U17 Eredivisie title.

Remember these names. They might just be the next big thing at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Golden Generation 1994

Four years ago, Terence Kongolo was the tall defender in one of the most succesful academy teams Feyenoord ever has ever seen. Winning the league, the cup and eventually, with five Feyenoord players, the U17 European Championship with the national team, a new golden generation was born at Varkenoord, the academy’s ground. Together with Karim Rekik, who left for Manchester City in 2011 and recently made his debut in the national team, Kyle Ebicilio, who left for a three year spell at Arsenal and is now an important player at FC Twente, Nathan Aké, a hot talent at Chelsea, Anass Achahbar, Tonny Vilhena, Lucas Woudenberg and Jean Paul Boëtius, all first team players at Feyenoord, Kongolo had impressed for years. Most of them had played with each other since they were just seven-year-old kids, forming the youngest team at the Academy.

Now, Kongolo finds himself in one of the most thrilling World Cups in football history. After securing a first team place after Christmas, Kongolo was finally living up to the promise that had surrounded him for years. Seeing his friends and former team mates Boëtius and Vilhena playing every week in Feyenoord’s monumental stadium De Kuip motivated him to fight even harder to get to the top, but it just wasn’t his time yet, until Joris Mathijsen, the 83 time Dutch international, picked up an injury. Kongolo was the biggest surprise in Louis van Gaal’s 23 man squad for this World Cup, and he made his first and only minutes against Chile.

Kongolo isn’t the only Feyenoorder in this successful Dutch team. Together with Jordy Clasie, Daryl Janmaat, Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi (all Academy graduates), the Swiss-born defender takes the lead in a story of youth development, financial troubles and football renaissance at the mouth of the Meuse, in the southern part of Rotterdam.

10-0 and the end and beginning of everything

It was in October 2010 when Feyenoord once again found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. With a lack of money, the end seemed near for a club which was once the biggest and richest in the world. Forty years after winning the European Cup, glory seemed far away for the working class club. After an unbelievable 10-0 loss to rivals PSV, the club looked not only financially broken, but even its players seemed to lack everything a Feyenoord player needed. Strength, work ethic ad mental strength. All of the club’s problems had come together that Sunday afternoon in October 2010.

Five players playing for Feyenoord that day are now starters in the Dutch team. Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi were never the most likely to make it at De Kuip. They were puny, weak, defenders, never starters in their teams until reaching the U17 side of legendary coach Cor Adriaanse (not be confused with former AZ and Ajax coach Co Adriaanse). Georginio Wijnaldum moved to PSV in 2011, Leroy Fer in that same summer to FC Twente, both tricky transfers, and Ron Vlaar is now playing for Aston Villa – though reports say he could joing Louis van Gaal at Manchester United.

De Vrij, a tall, intelligent schoolboy from a small Christian village in a quiet part of the province of South Holland, was the first of the two to make it to the first team. While the players in front of him in the hierarchy for so long left the Academy, he made his debut in a cup match against amateur side Harkemase Boys in the fall of 2009, he was just 17-years-old. That season, he kept Brazilian defender Andre Bahia out of the team, establishing himself next to Ron Vlaar, now the stronger, concrete defender in the Dutch team. One year later, Martins Indi, born in Portugal but raised in a tough neighbourhood in Rotterdam, made his first minutes in the UEFA Cup matches against KAA Gent from Belgium.

That 10-0 loss made everything clear. The club couldn’t go on like this any longer or it would mean the end of everything soon. In that sense, realising the scale of the problems, it was the beginning of a great future. With a lack of quality players, there was no alternative to looking at the other side of the street – at the academy fields. When coach Mario Been needed a striker, he took 17-year-old Luc Castaignos across the street and played him in the first team.  While Feyenoord had been buying players for years, in all silence a successful academy was built, producing class players, ready to takeover De Kuip.

Renaissance

After the worst season in club history, coach Been, himself once an academy graduate, was outvoted by his players – some of whom had been handed their debut by him. Been then departed the club in the summer of 2011, with Ronald Koeman brought in as his replacement. One year later, after a thrilling season built around the youthful surprises Clasie (back from a loan-spell at affiliate team Excelsior Rotterdam), De Vrij, Martins Indi and John Guidetti (on loan from Manchester City) and, well, a large contingent from Varkenoord.

Feyenoord secured a place in the Champions League for the first time in a decade. Quite an achievement for a team with most players still in their teen years or just reaching the early twenties. It gave a boost to the players, the club and the academy.

In the two years that followed under Koeman’s spell, Feyenoord did not break the Eredivisie hegemony of Ajax, eternally praised for its youth set-up. But with a team existing almost entirely of academy graduates, finishing runner-up twice and third once, winning back the pride of the club and its supporters might have been an even bigger achievement than winning the league.

Youth development

This Oranje World Cup team tells the story. With 11 of the 23 having a history at Feyenoord, most as Academy players, the Varkenoord academy forms the core of the success of Van Gaal’s men.

But why? What is so special about this Academy?

The Academy had always been one of the best in the Netherlands. Producing 1970 European Cup and World Cup 1974 and 1978 star Wim Jansen and almost the entire league winning team of 1984, the Academy had been important for the club for a long time. But for decades, most players were bought instead of developed through the youth ranks, and as football became globalised in the years pre- and post-Bosman ruling, money was spent on expensive foreign surprises rather than the youth.

It all changed in the last 10 years.

The roots to the success can be brought back to two moments in recent history of the club. In 2005, Stanley Brard was appointed as head of youth development, with the space and possibilities to reform the academy from which he once graduated himself. Two years later, Feyenoord found itself in huge debt due to perilous financial choices, including the transfers of Roy Makaay, Kevin Hofland and Tim de Cler, three old Dutch players who were bought for several million euros, with the hope they would bring Feyenoord back to the Eredivisie title, under the leadership of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, an academy graduate who returned to Feyenoord as a free agent. But the plan didn’t work as, although Feyenoord wonthe Dutch Cup, they finished sixth in the league and the debts got even bigger.

These debts eventually brought Feyenoord to its knees. The huge investments in players never brought much benefit, leaving the club with huge wage bills for players lacking quality and transfer budget to challenge for trophies.

Meanwhile, Brard had built his empire just across the street, at the Varkenoord system next to the stadium. In all silence, Brard had reformed the Academy, creating more teams so that 16-year-olds would only play with and against players their own age, and appointing former Feyenoord players as coaches without ambitions to leave the club for a bigger job any time soon, keeping them in his long term plan. Former first team player and manager Wim Jansen got a job as an “adviser” and he still walks around the fields every single day, helping players and coaches.

In the summer of 2007, Raymond Verheijen, a much criticised physical coach who had worked at the Dutch national team and Manchester City before, was brought in to reform the training methods of the academy teams and players. Verheijen had done huge research on youth football and especially injuries of young footballers in the Netherlands, and came to some shocking conclusions. Young, talented footballers grew less and had a bigger risk of dangerous injuries. Reasons? Too much training, too much physical labor during matches and training sessions. Young players were placed in older teams too soon against more physical opponents, with injuries as a likely consequence.

Thus, the Verheijen Method was born. Six training sessions a week became four, two matches became one. And from then on, newly recruited players got more time to acclimate to the intensive life and times of a football talent.

Instead of one uniform highly intensive physical training, each player got his own schedule tailored to his body, his performances and his potential. With periodic medical tests, the performances were followed and put into big databases, creating an ideal player-follow system of every individual Academy player. Also, new video installments were placed at around the pitches, making it possible to record every game and training session from multiple spots, following all individual players. The result is players who are technically better, physically more equipped without overworking themselves, able to perform for longer then their opponents.

Whereas the Ajax academy is more focused on individual development, it is development of the team and team work which are the pillars under the youth development at Feyenoord. “Development”, an Academy coach recently told me, “is more important than winning prizes, but it helps”.

Fruit from the tree

The first fruits of the Academy were plucked from the tree in 2007, when Georginio Wijnaldum made his first team debut at just 16-years-old, a club record. Later that year, Leroy Fer followed his long time friend. They were both in the Dutch team at the World Cup in Brazil. In 2009, Castaignos and De Vrij broke into the team, one season later Martins Indi did the same. Meanwhile, Clasie had a successful loan spell at Excelsior Rotterdam, Kelvin Leerdam silently became a starter, Erwin Mulder became first team goalkeeper and Miquel Nelom, who played his first caps in 2013, was sold to Excelsior, only to return in 2011.

Later, the 1994 generation got a grip on power. These were players who had played together for years, most of them since they were only seven-years-old. With Vilhena playing his first matches just weeks after his 17th birthday, Boëtius made his debut out of nowhere as a starter against rivals Ajax (and scoring a goal) and in Achahbar and Kongolo, after eagerly awaiting their chance, yet another generation broke through.

And here we are, just after the Dutch team secured third place in the World Cup – an unexpected performance. In the final 30 minutes of the game against Brazil, seven former Academy players were on the pitch (with Ron Vlaar and Dirk Kuyt bringing the figure of players associated to Feyenoord to nine).

Who would have thought Martins Indi and De Vrij would be the centre backs playing against the best player in the world when Netherlands met Argentina? Not the coaches and critics who were thinking of sending them home from the Academy when they weren’t meeting expectations. And who would have thought that Feyenoord, once a club buying players instead of raising them through their own ranks, would be the Royal supplier of the national team? Robin van Persie, Jonathan de Guzman both came from Varkenoord as well.

Long gone are the days Dutch youth football was dominated by the Ajax academy and all the world looked to Amsterdam to learn about youth development. The Varkenoord Revolution has brought not only Feyenoord back to the top, but now also the Dutch national team after the disappointment of the Euro 2012.

All the world knows now. With foreign journalists eagerly interviewing Head of Youth Development Damiën Hertog (yes, of course he is a graduate himself) and reporting about it, not only journalistic interest is growing. International interest from foreign clubs in the academy is growing, with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger recently stating it’s “one of the best academies in Europe”.

Last week, Feyenoord held soccer scouting camps in the United States and in Canada, training youngsters with the Feyenoord Method and giving the biggest talents a chance at a trial week in Rotterdam. Earlier this year, academy coaches trained groups of children in Cuba, Nigeria and the Dutch Antilles. Rumor has it the club is expending its methods, name and fame to India, just like in Northern America, an emerging football market as well.

The future

What’s left for the future? While Brard has left the club in 2014 and was replaced by Damien Hertog, the future is assured. In the upcoming season, Sven van Beek is likely to be the replacement when De Vrij leaves the club. Just like De Vrij, Van Beek was never the most likely to make it to professional football. Unlike his team mates, he had to play a second year in the U16 team, while Generation 1994 moved on to the U17 team of Cor Adriaanse. But Van Beek fought back and eventually made his debut in 2013 in a cup match against PSV, signing his first contract some days later. Together with Kongolo he is likely to be the new centre back duo “for years to come”, according to former coach Koeman. It’s telling for the quality of the individual training how some doubtful players like De Vrij, Martins Indi and Van Beek have grown to become important players, while forming a strong team as well.

So what can you expect for the future? Just write down the following names of Feyenoord Academy players. Most of them have already signed professional contracts, others will soon, and you’ll see them back in the top of international football in a couple of years. Calvin Verdonk, Jari Schuurman, Rick van der Meer, Marlon Slabbekoorn, Rashaan Fernandes, Bart Nieuwkoop, Nigel Robertha, Tahith Chong, Gustavo Hamer, Kamil Miazek.

Football director Martin van Geel indeed has every reason to smile and applaud.




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  1. Sorabh Sodhani

    The Dutch are ‘football thinkers’ .. starting trends of thoughtful football in every era. Now, it’s happening again. New style of football … a style characterised by an awesome team spirit and individual technical mastery!


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