As a football player, there is no better school than the Ajax academy: Darren Sidoel

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For six years Darren Sidoel lived in the moment climbing through the ranks of the famous youth football programme at Ajax. It is only now when he looks back that it feels surreal but nice. Or, in his words, “crazy”.

“I think sometimes you forget to enjoy it a little bit because you are so focused on football, doing your best,” said Sidoel, who has signed for SC East Bengal this term.

By “crazy” Sidoel meant being in the same building as the first team, players “you had only seen on television. It meant being watched by Dennis Bergkamp, Wim Jonk, Roland de Boer, Michael Reiziger, and current Ajax coach Eric ten Hag when he played and trained. And, of course, being aware that sometimes Johan Cruyff too would be watching from that balcony overlooking the pitch.”

The odd handshake was all that Sidoel got from Cruyff but with the rest it was different. They would often be on the pitch, sharing their experience and putting the young boys through the paces. “I saw them every day and had conversations. You become better by watching those who have been there, done that,” said Sidoel, 23. And you didn’t have too many bigger names than them in Holland.

The constellation of Dutch football stars were at Ajax because of Cruyff. In 2010, after Ajax lost 0-2 to Real Madrid, Cruyff wrote in a column that his Ajax—the team with whom he had won three European Cups—had lost its soul. Many a pundit would leave it at that but Cruyff decided to walk the talk. With Jonk, Bergkamp, Edwin van der Sar and Ruben Jongkind, head of talent development.

The movement Cruyff led was called the Velvet Revolution. It lasted till 2015 when he was ousted from the club but many of the things still remain. Things that helped Ajax make the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2019 and beat Borussia Dortmund 4-0 last week to lead Group C in the Champions League with an all-win record after three games.

The revolution focused on four things: playing attractive football, doing it with a majority of those reared by the club’s youth system—footballers would be bought only if they were considerably better—and fostering a culture of the collective, one that had constant feedback as its bedrock. The revolution hadn’t turned two when Sidoel joined. He was 14.

“When this came, it was probably one year before I joined but because I came in this period, this is the only Ajax I have experienced,” said Sidoel, who joined Ajax Youth in 2012 and played through their under-17, under-19 and under-21 teams before leaving for Reading in 2018.

Sidoel’s Ajax experience comprised growing up with Matthijs de Ligt, Justin Kluivert, Donny van de Beek, Noa Lang, Noussair Mazraoui and being senior to Frenkie de Jong and Jurrien Timber. It comprised playing with Joe van der Sar, also a goalkeeper, and having the senior Van der Sar drop in for a rare session—“he was more of a director so he wasn’t seen on the pitch very often,” said Sidoel. And of having small-sided games and 4v4 in cages to hone technical skills—things that seem regular now with development squads but were not nearly a decade ago.

It was also an experience of being trained for running by Bram Som, a former European champion and two-time Olympian who is still Holland’s fastest male over 800m. Som is credited for significantly improving the running technique of De Ligt and Van de Beek. Jongkind had an athletics background as well and would often get champions from gridiron football, pole vault and judo for sessions.

“That happened pretty much daily, people from different sports helping us. We had a running coach (Som), I think he was one of the best in Europe. A judoka who was part of the Olympics would help us. Not to take down a player through judo skills but become a better footballer. It was about them trying to give you the extra five or 10 per cent to be better mentally and physically. At Ajax, they have so much expertise to develop the player as much as possible. Now that I think about it, it’s basically crazy! You can’t wish for a better environment. But in the moment you are just like train, train, train and try to become better,” said Sidoel.

Getting specialists was Cruyff’s idea, one he had incorporated from golf. According to a 2019 report in The Daily Telegraph, Cruyff found it “absurd” that there is one coach in football while golf has coaches for putts and swings.

“As a football player, there is no better school than the Ajax academy. The way I play is what I learned at Ajax, said Sidoel. That is why he said it does get difficult for some players when they go to other teams. “Because you can’t expect to get the same things. At Ajax you get everything.”

Sidoel grew up loving Ronaldinho—“my father’s a Barca fan,” he said, one who took him and his older brother to Camp Nou for a visit—and playing in different positions at ADO Den Haag Youth, his first club in Den Haag which is, he said, some 45 minutes from Amsterdam by car. “It was for fun. It was about playing some games and being with friends.”

Things changed in 2010 “I began to realise that I was better than most of the players of my age. ‘You have to be serious because you can do something with your career,’ my coach told me,” said Sidoel. He doesn’t know exactly how Ajax came calling but said he would be told at Den Haag that scouts from big teams were watching him. Sidoel wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a professional football then.

Sidoel is convinced that if scouts saw and liked him it was because he wasn’t “thinking about a career in football”. “I just enjoyed it and did my thing. I remember being in a car after a game, probably we had lost the game and I was little angry. As was usual, my father spoke to me about the game, about the areas I could do better but I was not really listening. And all of a sudden he said, ‘Ajax wants you.’ And my eyes just opened like this,” he said, making his eyes go big and wide during the Zoom call from Goa where SC East Bengal are doing pre-seasons ahead of the Indian Super League.

“Ajax is one of the most famous academies in the world and when they call, you don’t say no. I also joined because at Ajax you could stay at home and not live with guest parents. I was happy that I could stay at home and travel up and down.”

That meant being picked up from school by an Ajax mini bus for training, having a meal at the club and then doing school work under the supervision of teachers at Ajax. “In Ajax, studies are very important. They say school is No. 1 and football comes after that.” It also meant 12-hour days. Didn’t it get tiring? “As a kid you have a lot of energy so it wasn’t too difficult,” he said.

As he went through the hoops at Ajax, Sidoel grew into a player who could play central defence and defensive midfield. It meant his idols too changed to Sergio Ramos, Thiago Silva “who like to play with the ball.” He can also enjoy the midfield play of N’Golo Kante and Casemiro while drooling over Kevin de Bruyne’s visionary passing skills. “I don’t have one favourite,” he said.

After six years at Ajax during which he would also play in the Dutch league’s second tier with their development side, Sidoel has been with five clubs between 2018 and joining SC East Bengal from Cordoba CF in Spain.

A documentary film on the time Dutch striker Mark Sifneos spent at Kerala Blasters (2017-18) “was about the only thing I knew about football in India.” The food is alright because of his Suriname roots. “You have quite some Indian influences in Suriname. Roti and the spices of the Indian kitchen I already knew when I was young. A lot of players also joke that I look like an Indian and ask, ‘is your family not from here’? So, for me it was quite easy to settle down,” he said.

Early into his India experience, Sidoel radiated positivity. Series on OTT platforms and PlayStation are helping him deal with the isolation of bio-bubble life. “It is not that difficult yet because you tell yourself you are here for a reason.” Adjusting with new teammates and coach too shouldn’t be a problem “because good players know what to do.” And being at Ajax has taught him to deal with expectations of the kind that would come with playing a 101-year-old club which has fans all over the world, he said. What could strike Sidoel as odd is the near complete absence of youth development at his and most other ISL clubs. But that is a conversation for another day.

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