As attention turns to the looming January transfer window, Ryan Ferguson explains why Dutch clubs invariably sell their stars.

  • By Ryan Ferguson
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blind djdndWhen football clubs decide to shop for fresh talent, the Netherlands is invariably a first port of call. From Ajax selling Johan Cruyff in the 1970s and PSV dispensing with Romario, Ronaldo and Marco van Basten within a decade, to the recent departures of Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind and Graziano Pelle, Eredivisie clubs have long adhered to a buy low, sell high principle in order to sustain and survive. Accordingly, the league has become the classic proving ground of European football, a grand incubator full to bursting with burgeoning elite talent which will ultimately move on for the right price. It’s the league of viable self-regeneration; the league of subtle renovation. It’s the ultimate selling league.

Ajax sell from a position of strength, knowing the illustrious De Toekomst academy will, in perpetuity, fashion homegrown replacements for departing first team stars. PSV sell with reluctant pragmatism, cognisant of their complicated standing in the grand ecosystem of European football. In the past, Feyenoord have sold influential players out of financial necessity or pure cultural habit, typically haemorrhaging talent before its full maturation due to desperation or managerial confusion.

Even the welterweights of Dutch football sell players with distinctive proclivity. In contemporary times, Heerenveen have transformed Friesland into an oasis of fresh, exuberant talent, with a steady crop of young prospects rising through the ranks, only to be sold in order to smooth the club’s path for another decade or so. Similarly, Twente have gambled with the margins by buying and selling at a frenetic pace; Utrecht have mastered the art of nurturing a few potential world-beaters then vending them in pre-planned flurries; and even Vitesse have sporadically auctioned off those players who stay around long enough to gain value.

This munificence has become the very zeitgeist of Eredivisie football, with every club looking to sell their most effective assets for the largest price at the optimum time. However, while the baseline desire to make future-saving profit may be generic across Dutch football, each team takes a different approach and is motivated to sell for subtly different reasons.

For many, it’s merely a matter of irrefutable arithmetic; the buy-low, sell-high principle minimising risk and representing sound business sense. By maintaining a stock of cheap and organic talent, then dealing from surplus from time to time, a club has more control over its destiny, with finances kept in check rather than spiralling out of all proportion. In many respects, the present financial model ensures Dutch clubs never lose sight of who they really are, nor where they presently stand. A team aware that it has to sell players in order to endure and evolve is a team more conscious of its strengths and weaknesses and, by extension, a team less likely to implode through greedy delusions of grandeur. In essence, Dutch clubs never get above their station. They know their plot in life because the market vociferously reminds them every six months or so.

On the other hand, a clutch of the larger teams, namely Ajax and, to a lesser extent, PSV and Feyenoord, actively sell players in the two-pronged ambition of making profit and honouring the deeply-entrenched tradition of providing an opportunity for homegrown youngsters. In this sense, we see how Dutch football differs from many other continental variations. In the Netherlands, football clubs aren’t so much corporate businesses as the beating heart of cultural fiefdoms. Clubs like Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord don’t merely exist to win football matches every weekend. They’re much bigger than that. They mean more to the communities they represent. They transcend the actual sport. For these clubs, it’s not enough to be successful; they must be successful whilst continually acknowledging, worshipping and enriching the traditions, ethics and heritage so laboriously concocted through layers of sacrosanct history.

For Ajax, this means a near-evangelical belief in, and celebration of, youth. Without the illustrious academy acting as a factory of talent, spawning young players schooled in the famous philosophy of Amsterdam football, the club becomes largely indistinguishable to any other. If there was no De Toekomst, there would be no practised Ajax Way. If there was no Ajax Way, there would be no enlightened ethos underpinning the club. And, if there were no baseline beliefs guiding all that the club does, panicked spontaneity, the very Kryptonite of contemporary football clubs, would reign, making Ajax distinctly normal.

But Ajax isn’t normal. There is a core ideology inspiring the club. There is an Ajax Way, creating players of enviable technical quality. There is a fabled youth academy, acting as the central organ through which the club’s lifeblood flows. Barcelona made famous the More Than a Club motto, but it’s also apt for Ajax, a club fashioned from the same gene pool. There is just a remarkable heritage about all that pervades in Amsterdam.

The Ajax cognoscenti prioritizes the upkeep of club identity above anything else. At the start of this decade, the club, steered by the omnipotent Cruyff, embarked on the so-called Velvet Revolution, aimed at restoring the traditional Ajax morals of sophisticated football and exceptional youth development, following a period of apparent neglect under the aegis of Martin Jol and Marco van Basten. After a few years in the wilderness, it was decided, somewhat forcibly by Cruyff, that Ajax should return to basics, meaning the adoption of a new managerial structure stocked with club alumni, such as Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and, of course, Frank de Boer as manager. These true ‘Ajax Men,’ well-versed in the deeply-ensconced club doctrine, were tasked with instilling into a new generation the very philosophy, espoused by Rinus Michels and enriched by Cruyff, upon which the Ajax dynasty was built.

The new technical heart began at the very bottom, deciding that, in order to fully moderate the Ajax Way, it must be engrained in their players from the earliest stage of development. Overmars and Bergkamp instituted a fresh master plan, aimed at “encouraging and educating genius,” thus returning the organic production of homegrown talent to the very nucleus of Ajax’ unfurling purpose.

Of course, a prolific youth system allows for a constant flow of talent into the base of a first team which, in turn, creates a concise squad hierarchy, allowing the cream to rise, ultimately making the top-end stars more dispensable. Thus, we see the cyclical squad construction model to which Ajax, and most Dutch clubs, adhere.

In essence, they sell their best players because they can; because there is a succession plan running four or five levels deep; because the replacements for departing first team stars are constantly being groomed.

For instance, Ajax could afford to sell Rafael van der Vaart because Wesley Sneijder was breaking through. They sold Sneijder and replaced him with Christian Eriksen. It’s a process of continuous evolution.

Just this year, the blow of selling Daley Blind was softened because, in Jairo Riedewald or Riechedley Bazoer, two versatile and highly-touted starlets, Ajax already know who will likely replace him in the medium term.

This is a fitting demonstration of how, in Holland, the actual player wearing the jersey is totally inferior to the jersey itself. The club ethos, ideals and style are so ingrained, and the youth players are schooled in them from such an early age, that, ultimately, any player representing the first team at any one time is but a cog in the wider club narrative, an almost faceless exponent of club philosophy. The players will venture through the system, spend three or four years in the spotlight, before moving on, but the spirit lacing through the club, tested through years of battle and success, will never change.

Accordingly, Dutch clubs ascribing to this credo, most notably Ajax, have gathered a reputation as serial sellers. This may be the case, but one could also argue that they’re serial believers in their own ability to nurture human talent, and that selling stars is but an outgrowth of that predatory success. They’re awash in young talent, so why not sell some of the surplus for enrichment and growth? It’s a no-brainer.

For instance, take the top ten outgoing transfers in Ajax history: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Sneijder, Luis Suarez, Cristian Chivu, Blind, Bergkamp, Ryan Babel, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen. That stable of players generated 192.8m for the club. However, it cost just €28.2m to get them to Ajax originally, creating a sublime 164.6m, or 58.3%, profit.

In any business, that makes sense. In any business, that works.

It’s important to contemplate why it appears so easy for Ajax to recruit these players and, by extension, remain competitive whilst polishing a formidable business model.

Initially, the academy is a huge help. Of the aforementioned top transfers, six spent time at De Toekomst, meaning any eventual transfer fee accrued is almost all profit. This was the case with all manner of players, stretching back to Cruyff, through to van Basten and Rijkaard, and onto Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf. Understandably, Ajax pump copious amounts of revenue into the youth system, inspiring world class talent with cutting edge facilities and elite coaching. In turn, the academy’s reputation becomes a self-perpetuating recruitment tool of its own, with players from over the world yearning to venture to Amsterdam and kick-start a career.

Furthermore, prior to the boom in football’s globalisation, there were enclaves of the world that were largely under-scouted. Many Dutch clubs, most notably PSV and Ajax, utilised this to their advantage, effectively plundering faraway lands for their prized assets at discount rates. In this manner, PSV raided Brazil for Romario and Ronaldo; Feyenoord plucked Shinji Ono from the Urawa Reds of Japan and Danko Lazovic from Partizan Belgrade of Serbia; and Ajax helped themselves to a young Malmo forward named Zlatan and an unheralded defender called Chivu from Universitatea Craiova in Romania. These players were then plugged into the respective Dutch machines in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and Eindhoven, where they matriculated into global megastars capable of commanding record transfer fees.

Even within the Eredivisie, there exists a distinct market hierarchy, with PSV, Ajax, Feyenoord and Twente, the four imposing juggernauts, supplementing their homegrown core with the best players from smaller Dutch clubs. This ensures their continued dominance atop Dutch football, keeping would-be rivals at arms length.

Heerenveen are widely considered the ultimate selling club within domestic Dutch football, having lost a slew of players to competitors in the past twenty years, including Huntelaar, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Miralem Sulejmani and Luciano Narsingh. Likewise, Utrecht packaged Dries Mertens and Kevin Strootman off to PSV and saw John de Jong, Mike van der Hoorn, Dirk Kuyt and Jens Toornstra depart for other clubs within the Netherlands.

Thus, it becomes clear that, perhaps more so than any other league in the world, the Eredivisie, and the clubs contained therein, has a distinct understanding of its stature. There is a clear food chain, to which all teams pay obedience. In the grand ecosystem of world football, the top Dutch clubs, such as PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord, have carved a simultaneous existence as both domestic forces and international launch pads. If the international transfer market were viewed as a school playground, these elite Dutch clubs can be seen to cajole and steal the lunch money of infants, yet answer to the bigger boys with names like Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle.

They’re part of the process, just hoping to make their own slice of profit along the way.

The career path of one Luis Suarez provides the perfect prism through which to analyse the global transfer hierarchy and, by extension, better understand why Dutch clubs sell their best players. Suarez began his career with Nacional in Uruguay, graduating through the youth system to become a star performer in 2005/06. He then moved to Groningen, a small Dutch club which attempts to eke out an existence by polishing and selling such raw diamonds, for €800,000. After a phenomenal debut campaign in the Eredivisie, replete with splashes of his future world class talent, Suarez was then sold by Groningen to Ajax, king carnivore of Holland, for €7.5m. In Amsterdam, Suarez osciliated between genius and controversy for four seasons, scoring and creating danger at an alarming rate, before moving on to Liverpool for €26.5m in 2010. We all know what happened next. Suarez carried Liverpool to the precipice of history, joined Messi, Ronaldo and Bale in the top echelon of world footballers, and hop-scotched to Barcelona for €94m in the summer.

In barely a decade, Suarez was filtered through the entire hierarchy of world football, from the very bottom to the ultimate zenith. Nacional made a €800,000 profit from selling him; Groningen €6.7m; Ajax €19m; and, finally, Liverpool with a whopping €67.5m.

It’s a system, a process, a structure. It tells clubs where they stand, and it keeps them ticking along at a rate commensurate to their size. In facilitating a gateway to the elite echelon, Dutch clubs are a vital cog in the global transfer machine. They sign their own stars or unearth cheap ones in domestic auctions, commit huge amounts of time and money into developing them into a product desirable to the world’s best, then shuffle off to market.

It’s evolution in action, and we should watch with nothing but complete admiration.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)