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Story pick: How a soccer star Is made

Ever worry that your children's youth-sports coaches might be a little too intense? Well, at least they weren't enrolled in the youth academy of the famous Dutch soccer club Ajax.

With the World Cup kicking off this week, Michael Sokolove has written a fascinating account of the Dutch football factory ("grandiosely called De Toekomst — The Future") for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

The Bethesda-based sports journalist reports that the young players who are accepted into the Dutch program are thrown "into a competitive cauldron, a culture of constant improvement in which they either survive and advance or are discarded. It is not what most would regard as a child-friendly environment, but it is one that sorts out the real prodigies — those capable of playing at an elite international level — from the merely gifted."

The most successful pupils become soccer professionals whose rights are sold by Ajax for significant sums of money: Sokolove writes that one coach took his notebook and scribbled five names, then "wrote '80 million euros.' The names represented five active 'Ajax educated' players, as he called them, all of whom entered the academy as children, made it through without being sent away and emerged as world-class players. Eighty million euros (or even more) is what Ajax got in return for selling the rights to the players to other professional clubs. Once a team pays this one-time transfer fee, it then negotiates a new, often very large, contract with the player."

A bit of societal context from Sokolove: "In America, with its wide-open spaces and wide-open possibilities, we celebrate the 'self-made athlete,' honor effort and luck and let children seek their own course for as long as they can — even when that means living with dreams that are unattainable and always were. The Dutch live in a cramped, soggy nation made possible only because they mastered the art of redirecting water. They are engineers with creative souls, experts at systems, infrastructure and putting scant resources to their best use. The construction of soccer players is another problem to be solved, and it’s one they undertake with a characteristic lack of sentiment or illusion."

Great stuff.

By J. Freedom du Lac  | June 7, 2010; 9:20 AM ET
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