The footprints in the reception hall of Ajax Cape Town are easy to overlook. Not dirty footprints like those of a child who forgot to take its shoes off after a rainy day. These ones are silver and get larger when you follow them. After about five meters you reach a wall which exhibits the football boots of Ajax´s most famous players. The footprints on the floor symbolise the long and arduous walk that a young talent must undertake when he wants to become an Ajax star one day. Next to the wall with the boots, a vitrine displays the numerous trophies that the club's youth teams have won over the last twenty years.The early years
Ajax Cape Town clearly is a special club. It differs in so many ways from other football teams in South Africa and its history is both exciting and rich with unforeseen twists. Founded as a merger of the Cape Town Spurs and Seven Stars in 1999, the majority of the shares belong to Ajax Amsterdam -the world-class club from the Netherlands. A local family possesses the remaining 49 percent. The reasons for Amsterdam´s interest in the South African club are interlinked with its financial situation. Being the only Dutch club at the stock market, Ajax Amsterdam earned a lot of money at the end of the 20th century. They then decided to invest it in buying or creating clubs all around the world with the goal of spotting the most promising young talents. Only is left today: Ajax Cape Town.
The connection to Amsterdam helped a lot in the early years. The club implemented the highly successful youth development strategy of Ajax Amsterdam. The focus on developing young talents is still ingrained in the club´s philosophy today. The likes of Steven Pienaar and Thulani Serero made their decisive steps to football stardom in Cape Town. What is the club´s secret to success? Why does it have the best youth academy in the country whereas the first team struggles?The connection to Amsterdam
"In Cape Town, we did something that no one else did: We built a youth academy, no other club had an academy. Even today we are one of the few in South African football", Hans Vonk says. Vonk is both Head of Youth and Head of Professional Football at Ajax Cape Town. He played 118 matches for the club, 36 for Ajax Amsterdam and 36 for Bafana Bafana. Vonk knows both the South African and the European football world. In Amsterdam, it is all about the youth. The legendary Johan Cruyff paved the way for the club´s rise to football glory. "Don´t spend too much money on players from other clubs. We can do it better ourselves", he once said.
Ajax Cape Town adopted this philosophy. "We copied the training sessions of Ajax Amsterdam, their youth development and style of playing. Dutch people coach the coaches in Cape Town", Vonk explains. The two clubs are constantly in contact and receive feedback or information about new developments in the football world. Ajax Cape Town benefited a lot from the good structures in Dutch football. "We certainly are one of the best organised clubs in South Africa", Vonk says. To have success in South African football, independence and a good structure are crucial.Problems in South African football
Among the many challenges that football faces in this country, there are two things that Vonk especially misses. First: good coaches. The coaching education that our football association offers is not good enough", Vonk says. At Ajax Cape Town, for some years now, there is a former Dutch coach, who does workshops with the club´s youth coaches in order to improve their coaching abilities.
"We don´t have enough competent coaches to train our many talents in South Africa. That is a big, big problem." Hans Vonk
The second problem Vonk recognized, is the overall structure of youth development in South African football. In schools, he says, the kids mainly play rugby, cricket, or netball. It clearly pays off. Both in rugby and netball, South Africa has among the most successful teams with the Springboks being incumbent World Champions. The pupils barely get in touch with a football though. "It still isn´t integrated in our school system", Vonk complains. Thus, it is up to the clubs to develop possible talents. There the association´s philosophy is: Everybody with a little talent must play football. "That is the wrong approach", Vonk says. "The best must play against the best. Only then, talents can improve." To fix that, six clubs from the Western Cape created their own youth league - The High-Performance League. There, the best talents from four age groups compete. In four years, they plan to increase the league to ten teams.The Lambda Institute
Furthermore, one year ago, in November 2018, the doors of the brand-new Lambda Institute opened. The club´s aim was to get out of the norm, to do things differently and give the most talented kids a full-time training environment to thrive and grow. It is another step for Ajax Cape Town towards an even better and more efficient youth development. The strategy behind it is unique in South African football and pushes the boundaries of giving young people the best possible environment. The name "Lambda" is derived from the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet and symbolises the number of one team´s players on the football pitch. But the institute is a lot more than just a football academy.
As more and more clubs started building their own youth development structures, Ajax needed to improve its academy. "The times when every talent in the Western Cape went to Ajax are over", Vonk admits. "We have to fight for them now. So, we planned a full-time academy, where we select only the best of the best players." For some, it means a major improvement of their living conditions as they come from the poorest areas of Cape Town. Currently, there are 15 boys living and learning at the Lambda Institute, selected in a rigorous process. Ajax lacks the money and the facilities to offer every one of their 100 youth players a place at Lambda. Whereas in Europe it is common that all accepted talents go to the same academy. The youngest age group at Lambda are the under-14 players. The teenagers stay the whole week. Only after the match on Saturday are they then free to go home for the remainder of the weekend. More training, that´s the key.Education made by Ajax
In the club´s own school, the talents from Lambda mainly attend internet-based learning courses. Alongside the regular school subjects, the club focusses on providing them with certain life skills to prepare the different age groups for their future life. "But we realized that having talent doesn´t always mean that you will have a successful career", Vonk says. "For every player there can be a moment when we have to tell him: "Sorry, it is not going to work out for you. You have to do something different." They need something they can fall back on then." That is why it is of utmost importance for those kids who attend the Lambda Institute to finish school:
"The least we can give them is a matric. We have a clear policy. You must finish school! There is no way to escape education at Ajax." Hans VonkPromotion is vital for the club
So, when will the expensive academy pay off? Three Lambda players are already part of the first team, even though they don´t play regularly. "Hopefully there are more in the next three years, who we can transfer to a European club. We need some money to maintain the institute", Vonk says. Right now, the club finds itself in a tricky situation. Having been relegated in 2018, Ajax Cape Town plays its second year in a row in the National First Division, the second tier of South African football. This means far less money to spend. And: "It is impossible to stay attractive for young players in this league", Vonk says. "Everybody wants to play in the Premier Soccer League. Right now, it is very difficult for us to compete." The pressure to get promoted to the PSL is immense. Another year in the National First Division could prove even more damaging, both financially and in terms of reputation.
With the help of the Lambda Institute and new promising talents, Ajax Cape Town´s chances to return to the top tier are good. With the benefits of playing in the PSL, the club might again be able to keep its most talented players for a while and sell them to a European club. Only once they are ready and good enough. It all depends on this season. And those players who pave the club´s way for promotion could be the ones whose boots will be showcased in
Ajax´s shiny reception hall one day.