The Secrets Behind The Success Of Dutch Football

Despite being smaller than their rival nations, Holland continues to produce technically gifted footballers. Here's a deeper look in to one of the world's most successful youth systems...
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The Netherlands are not only known for their tulips, clogs, windmills and marijuana. When you think of Holland and football, you think of Total Football, Johan Cruijff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and, more recently, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Robin van Persie. The country is known for producing talented and skilful football players that are among world’s best. One of the core reasons Holland produces so many talents is the excellent organisation of youth football from which other countries can learn a lot.

Since 2002 Holland is the home of an integrated professional and amateur network of 3000 clubs. The country’s number 1 sport is football. It has 36 professional football clubs (18 in the Eredivisie, 18 in the Eerste Divisie) and around 3000 amateur clubs. The clubs are based all over the whole country. The KNVB has 1.2 million members (7% of the Dutch population) and 480,000 are youth players.

The Dutch model has been in place for ten years. Louis van Gaal, then the national coach, integrated the sport across six regions on behalf of the Dutch FA, the KNVB. This pyramid consists of the 3,000 clubs that are governed by a single body, the KNVB, with the amateur game benefiting from €1 billion a year of investment. Local authorities contributes 90% of the a€1 billion and the government the remainder. UEFA stated in April 2011 this should be the model that English football adopts if it is ever to replicate the kind of success enjoyed by Dutch players and teams. Holland is an excellent grassroots model.

As said the sports is integrated across six regions: North, West I, West II, South I, South II and East. There are different categories of levels the youth play at. You play in your region when you play from 6th (lowest) to 1st (highest) Class. The youth play domestic football in the ‘Head Class’ and ‘Top Class’. Above these you’ve only the Eredivisie and Eerste Divisie left. In this case everybody can play at its own level and enjoy the sport as much as possible.

Until the age of 14 teams from professional clubs still play against teams from amateur clubs.

A tour around various amateur clubs will show the stark difference in facilities between the Netherlands and England. The facilities will always include floodlit grass and artificial pitches, warm and (mostly) clean changing rooms, hot showers, spacious clubhouses, car parking and bicycle ports. The owners of the amateur clubs are the members. Control and management is executed by the board of directors. For the daily maintenance the clubs have their volunteers: from groundsman to barkeeper to coaches for every single team. Clubs get money from sponsors, membership costs (around €180 per year) and selling food and drinks in the clubhouses.

From the age of 5 you can join organised club football. At that age you start playing 4 v 4, moving up to 7 v 7 in the U7’s and U9’s. From the U11 the youth starts playing 11 v 11. In the Netherlands the key ethos is that all age-group teams should play 4-3-3 and that coaching sessions should be fun, with individuality allowed whether players are future stars of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and FC Twente or destined to remain in the grassroots game. Competitive youth football is also played between professional and amateur clubs, which means standards between the sport's two strands are closer. The professional clubs scout the players for their academies from amateur clubs in the area. Normally winning, not enjoyment, is the end game and in England and other countries it would be unheard of for a youth side of Manchester United, Liverpool FC or Chelsea to play against an equivalent amateur team.

Until the age of 14 teams from professional clubs still play against teams from amateur clubs. Holland's overall football philosophy is to always focus on ball possession to create opportunities. This is also true at amateur clubs. In the youth they always think in an attacking way. Despite everything, the most important thing is that the kids have fun and enjoy what they are doing.

Competitive youth football is also played between professional and amateur clubs, which means standards between the sport's two strands are closer.

As a young girl all I did in my free time from school was playing football with my best mates. At the age of 7 a dream finally came true:  my parents allowed me to play football at a club. It was something I had wanted from a young age. From that moment until now (I’m 21) I’ve played for RKSV Were Di in Tilburg. A small amateur club that has around 600 members nowadays. I started in the U7’s in a team two of my best friends were playing for. You might be wondering these two friends were girls: no, they weren’t. From when I was 7 until I turned 17 I played in a boy’s team. That’s no issue here in Holland at all. Better said, the KNVB encourages girls to play in a boy’s team because you learn more.

My last season with the boys was during my second season as a U17. The time had come the lads became too strong and fast for a small young woman as I was and still am. With a heartache I left them and joined the Ladies team. Today I’m the captain of that fantastic team. I still love playing football as much as I did when I was little. When I think back of my time in the different youth teams the first words that spring to mind are joy and fun. That’s what I had and that’s what the system wants to bring.

I realised during writing this article how lucky we are here in Holland to have a system like this. Every boy or girl in Holland that wants to do what he or she loves most has the opportunity to do so. This country offers the best facilities and system to give the youth the opportunities to develop themselves as a player and person. It’s all about enjoyment.

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