After DSB’s bankruptcy, AZ has already become a top European club in the youth sector
It’s the Champions League for youth, the European Youth League for Europe’s greatest soccer talents. And AZ gets to visit the great Barcelona in the eighth finals today, at the Estadi Johan Cruyff.
It could hardly be more beautiful, agrees head of youth development Paul Brandenburg of the Alkmaar club.
“We have our own vision of training, which is sometimes different from other clubs,” he tries to explain the success. “We have to be creative within our resources. We give space to talents in our region to achieve their dreams.”
Ajax is also competing in the Youth League with its top youth team, thanks to the main team’s championship in the premier league. AZ claimed the second ticket, winning the Dutch league for teams under 18.
AZ’s youth is flourishing like never before. And a match like this against Barcelona can only be stimulating. They have something extra to offer their talents from a sporting perspective, because they will not win from the big money in Alkmaar.
“Since the Brexit, by the way, we are hardly bothered by the English clubs, because players are not allowed to enter Britain before the age of eighteen. But of course this does arouse interest from the top clubs,” Brandenburg also knows.
AZ also reached the eighth finals a year ago, then with Maxim Dekker, Wouter Goes and Myron van Brederode among their ranks. They are now preparing with the first team for the European matches against Lazio.
Five years ago we followed Kees Smit, now one of AZ’s players in the Youth League, for a day in the Alkmaar training program:
2018: AZ talent Kees Smit in NOS series ‘The State of Orange’
“The throughput of youth to professional soccer is very high with us,” Brandenburg tells proudly. “At the under 13 it’s still just under fifty percent. At the under-15 level, on average just over half, 52.2 percent, of the players make it to professional soccer. That viewed over the last seven years.”
There is another reason for this beyond AZ’s distinctive approach. Namely, that the promising team plays in the first division under the name Jong AZ.
Consequence of DSB bankruptcy
This will give many more players the chance to gain experience in professional soccer. That competition is for many players a springboard to still reach the first team of AZ or eventually make a step to another club in professional soccer.
The huge investment in the Alkmaar youth is a conscious choice after the bankruptcy of DSB in late 2009, the company of former backer Dirk Scheringa.
The survival of the club was hanging by a thread, after which the decision was made to fully invest in the club’s own youth. “Everywhere in the club there were cuts, but in the training, on the contrary, there was a conscious investment. Never again, we thought after all the ups and downs. AZ had to become a healthy club again, to sail on its own merits.”
And, of course, AZ was also simply no longer able to get very expensive players from outside, giving youth real room to break through.
“We are now playing against the great Barcelona, which is delivering one international after another to Spain through its youth. But we are now doing the same to the Dutch team,” Brandenburg recalled. “I do want to see it against Barcelona, where we are now.”
Internationals of the future
The internationals of the future listen to names like Lewis Schouten, Mexx Meerdink and Ernest Poku. The latter already played with the big men once against Celtic, in the preliminary round of the Europa League.
An important maxim in Alkmaar youth is that children are prepared at an early age for what awaits them later, if they manage to turn pro. This adventure leaves little to the imagination.
Red Star Belgrade was defeated, with hectic scenes afterwards. Eintracht Frankfurt were wiped off the mat 5-0 at home in the previous round. “If you had told me ten years ago that we would be standing here now, I would have looked at you crazy. Barcelona away, that feels like icing on the cake.”