New York :The youth academy of the famed dutch soccer club Ajax is grandiosely called De Toekomst -- The Future. Set down beside a highway in an unprepossessing district of Amsterdam, it consists of eight well-kept playing fields and a two-story building that houses locker rooms, classrooms, workout facilities and offices for coaches and sports scientists. In an airy cafe and bar, players are served meals and visitors can have a glass of beer or a cappuccino while looking out over the training grounds. Everything about the academy, from the amenities to the pedigree of the coaches -- several of them former players for the powerful Dutch national team -- signifies quality. Ajax once fielded one of the top professional teams in Europe. With the increasing globalization of the sport, which has driven the best players to richer leagues in England, Germany, Italy and Spain, the club has become a different kind of enterprise -- a talent factory. It manufactures players and then sells them, often for immense fees, on the world market. "All modern ideas on how to develop youngsters begin with Ajax," Huw Jennings, an architect of the English youth-development system, told me. "They are the founding fathers."
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.