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When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
This part of the series looks at the best players to emerge from the academy at Feyenoord.
With all the pomp and circumstance that justifiably surrounds the likes of Germany, Spain, and France when it comes to youth academies and player development, so many often forget that the Netherlands continue to do it rather well; and have been for quite some time.
Traditional wisdom sees most football supporters reference the brilliance of Ajax Amsterdam and their commitment to youth development. With an endless list of world class talents that have come through the ranks at the Sportcomplex De Toekomst, the club are rightly nicknamed de Godenzonen. Though it is not just Ajax who can stake claim as the epicenter of youth football in Holland.
Though a club that does not have the same pedigree as their more illustrious rivals, at least outside of the Netherlands, Feyenoord has quietly put themselves on the youth landscape over the last decade.
Winner the Rinus Michel Award for best youth academy in the country in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, their academy, usually referred to as Varkenoord, was responsible for eleven former players at World Cup 2014 in Brazil; more than any other academy in the world.
Much like Ajax, faith in their ability to keep the youth pipeline well-oiled remains a club priority, with fourteen current first-team players being academy graduates; and it’s bearing fruit. At time of writing, Feyenoord sit atop of the Eredivisie, six points clear of Ajax with just seven matches remaining in the domestic campaign.
Note that these are professional footballers who have played in or after 2000.
A native of Haarlem and standing just 5’7, ‘The Dutch Xavi’ was one of the more popular players to come through the Feyenoord youth ranks in recent memory.
Beginning his education at Varkenoord in 2000 at the age of nine, Clasie progressed quite well up the ladder for a decade when, during the 2010-2011 Eredivisie season, he was sent on loan to SBV Excelsior, a Feyenoord satellite club. He made his first-team debut for The Kralingers in the Rotterdam derby against his parent club in a 3-2 win.
After appearing in every Eredivisie match of the season, and netting two goals in the process, Clasie would return to Feyenoord and was immediately given a chance to impress by new boss and Dutch legend Ronald Koeman. After a strong pre-season, Koeman made him a crucial piece of the puzzle during his time at the De Kuip Stadium.
He would go on to make 153 total appearances across three competitions for De club aan de Maas, as well as breaking into the full Dutch national side (he was in Louis van Gaal’s team in Brazil that placed third), before yet again working under Koeman, this time in the Premier League at Southampton, where he still currently plays his club football.
Clad in sleeve tattoos and sporting a top knot, Rick Karsdorp’s appearance closely resembles a character out of Sons of Anarchy rather than a footballer; but appearances are so often deceiving.
After starting his youth career at VV Schoonhoven, Feyenoord scouts brought him to Varkenoord in 2004 at the age of nine. After progressing through the ranks, he made his first-team debut at the age of nineteen during the 2014-15 season, where he would go on to make twenty-three appearances across the domestic front and the Europa League.
The following season saw massive progression from him, making thirty-five appearances and registering a team-high ten assists in the league.
Over the last year, Karsdorp has been rumored to be linked with a move away from the club, including apparent interest from Arsenal. Questions aside, he remains first choice right-back for the club, and has added two caps for the Netherlands to his CV.
Born in the small city of Maassluis to an Angolan father and a Dutch mother, Tonny Vilhena has long since been tipped for big things at the club.
He began his youth career with local side VDL-Maassluis before Feyenoord swooped him away in 2003 at the age of eight. After spending nine years at Varkenoord, he broke into the first-team under Koeman in 2012. By that point, he was already a crucial player at the European U-17 Championship in both 2011 and 2012, helping his country win both tournaments.
As he’s progressed at the club, he’s made a combined forty-eight appearances for the Dutch U-17 and U-21 sides, and at current he’s featured for Feyenoord on 171 occasions, registering twenty-one goals and sixteen assists in just over five seasons. He’s now a full Dutch international after making his debut in a 2-0 win against Austria back in June, and remains vital to efforts in midfield.
The older brother of Manchester City academy player Rodney, Terence Kongolo is another player with expectations surrounding him.
After moving to the Netherlands at a young age (he was born in Switzerland to Congolese parents), he would enter the academy in 2002 at the age of eight, where he would spend a decade learning his trade.
Another player to break into the first-team under the Koeman regime, Kongolo made his senior debut in 2012, but it wouldn’t be until the 2013-14 season that he was truly trusted at the back. Already seasoned at youth level for the Netherlands, including being nominated into the team of the tournament at the 2011 Euro U-17 Championship, Kongolo went from strength to strength during his first real run in the side, and built on his progression to become a key member of the first team during the 2014-15, and 2015-16 seasons; a status he currently maintains.
Like Terence Kongolo, Dutch international Bruno Martins Indi was born elsewhere and immigrated to the Netherlands. Hailing from Barreiro in Portugal and born to parents from Guinea-Bissau, Indi moved to Rotterdam from a very young age.
He started his education at Spartaan’20 in 2000 where he spent five years, before switching to Feyenoord. After five additional years at Varkenoord, Kongolo broke into the first-team in 2010, also under Koeman’s tutelage.
After going on to feature prominently for the club to the tune of 120 appearances across three competitions in four seasons, he would move to the country of his birth after World Cup 2014 (where he featured for Louis van Gaal’s side to good effect) in a switch to Portuguese giants FC Porto.
Two years and seventy appearances later, as well as thirty-one caps for the Netherlands, Indi finds himself on loan at Stoke City, where he’s made twenty-eight appearances at time of writing.
A native of Rotterdam of Dutch-Indonesian descent, Giovanni van Bronckhorst is very much a club icon. After spending his first year of youth development with Linker Maas Oever Rotterdam, he moved to Feyenoord in 1982 at the age of seven, where he would spend eleven years in the youth system.
His first full professional season was spent on-loan at RKC Waalwijk during the 1993-94 season. And though he returned to Rotterdam the following summer, he failed to truly break into the first-team until 1995-96, where he established himself as critical piece of the puzzle.
Stops at Glasgow Rangers, Arsenal, and Barcelona would follow after he left the club in 1998, but he would return home in 2007, and finished his playing career after the 2009-10 campaign.
All told, the current Feyenoord manager made 581 club appearances (including 235 for Feyenoord), and 106 for the national team, while scoring six goals, including an absolute stunner against Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup.
Patrolling the touchline at the De Kuip since 2015, he’s already won the KNVB Beker, as well as leading the club to a current position of first in the table in the latter stages of the season. With fifty-three wins in eighty matches in charge thus far (66.25% winning percentage), Gio is on course to have yet another positive impression on the club.
When you are in the position Feyenoord find themselves, the accepted reality is that your best homegrown players will likely head off to bigger leagues, and for higher wages; Stefan de Vrij is certainly one that maybe got away.
Though he began his youth career at VV Spirit in his hometown of Ouderkerk aan den Ijssel, a move to Varkenoord would come to pass in 2002 at the age of ten. After seven years in the youth teams where he made fantastic progress, he broke into the first-team in 2009. One-hundred and thirty-five appearances later, and even stints as captain (though he lost the armband given a lack of form), de Vrij moved to Serie A-side SS Lazio in the summer of 2014 on the back of very impressive performances in Brazil for the national team.
After featuring thirty-five teams in his first season, a knee injury while on international duty in September of his second year at the club would see him miss the entire Serie A campaign.
Now fully recovered (he suffered additional injuries during the current season, but far less severe), De Vrij is back in the Lazio side, making twenty-three total appearances and forming a solid partnership in the center of defense with countryman Wesley Hoedt. Should he regain his best form, he should reinstate himself as an important piece to the national team.
From top dog to massive question mark, Daryl Janmaat’s career is certainly one of highs and lows.
At age six he began his youth career with the club in 1995, right up to the age of eighteen where his education neared completion. Despite the longevity of his time in the youth ranks, Janmaat broke into regular first-team football with ADO Den Haag in 2007 after leaving Rotterdam. After a successful first year as a full professional, Janmaat moved to SC Heerenveen in 2008, building a credible reputation for four years before returning to Feyenoord in 2012.
Two impressive seasons on the right side of the defense under Koeman saw him fully establish himself as first-choice right-back for the national team, playing well in Brazil in 2014 in the process. That same summer saw him leave the Netherlands for England when he signed for Newcastle United. Two solid seasons on Tyneside was not enough to help Newcastle avoid the drop, however, but his time in the Championship was short lived, and he secured a return to the English top flight when he signed for Watford this past summer.
Despite his return to a higher level, it’s been a season to forget for Janmaat at club level. Internationally, the emergence of the likes of the Rick Karsdorp, as well as Ajax’s Kenny Tete will more than likely see Janmaat lose his place in the team indefinitely.
Son of the late Wlodzimierz Smolarek, former Feyenoord player and Polish international, Ebi Smolarek was Polish-born but raised in the Netherlands due to his father’s professional career. After starting his youth progression at VV Spirit, Smolarek shifted to Feyenoord in 1993 when he was twelve.
Completing a further seven years in the youth tiers, Ebi made his full debut for the club in 2000, going on to make sixty-eight appearances over five seasons, and scoring twelve times. His journeyman career would then go into overdrive.
Two successful seasons at Borussia Dortmund (twenty-five goals in eighty-one appearances) were followed up by spells at Racing Santander, Bolton Wanderers, Kavala FC, Polonia Warsaw, Al-Khor SC, ADO Den Haag, and finally Jagiellonia Bialystok, where he would end his playing career after the 2012-13 league campaign.
Though his club career was slightly underwhelming, his international career for Poland was certainly notable. He went on to feature forty-seven times and score twenty goals for his country, including very successful scoring periods in qualification for Euro 2008 as well as World Cup 2010.
The three-time Polish Footballer of the Year, and UEFA Cup winner with Feyenoord, is now a coach at the club.
A son of Rotterdam, Georginio Wijnaldum only spent three years at Varkenoord. At age seven he began his youth education at city-rival Sparta Rotterdam in 1997, but moved across town to Feyenoord in 2004.
After putting the final touches on his development, Wijnaldum broke into the first-team and made his senior debut in 2007 at the tale-end of the 2006-07 Eredivisie campaign. The following season only saw him feature on twelve occasions in all competitions, but it was during the 2008-09 season that he made his real breakthrough.
Wijnaldum would go on to make 135 total appearances before moving to league-rivals PSV Eindhoven in 2011. Though he showed promise while at Feyenoord, it was at Eindhoven where he realized his full potential, eventually making 154 appearances and scoring fifty-six goals in the process over four years, while also being named Dutch Footballer of the Year for the 2014-15 season.
Such was his success in a formidable PSV team that Premier League eyes fell on him, and he eventually chose Newcastle United as his next port of call. Though he was personally excellent to the tune of eleven Premier League goals in thirty-eight appearances, it wasn’t enough to save the Geordie faithful from relegation embarrassment, and he quickly found the exit door when Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp came calling.
He currently is an important option for the German headmaster at Anfield, while also routinely being called upon for the national team.
Though Valkenoord has been producing young talent at optimal levels in recent years, it certainly isn’t playing a heavy hand as it was previously. Still and yet, the players coming through at current are certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Rashaan Fernandes, and Nigel Robertha, have both featured prominently for the Dutch U17’s, making fifteen and twelve appearances respectively. Robertha, however, has already been given his debut for the Feyenoord first team, coming on as a sub for nineteen minutes in the club’s 1-0 away win at Willem II Tilburg in May of 2016.
Few more players certainly deserve mention as well, all of whom have also made their debuts. Midfielders Gustavo Hamer, and Emil Hansson, as well as winger Mo El Hankouri, and goalkeeper Justin Bijlow, are all very much on Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s radar looking forward. El Hankouri has made two substitute appearances for the first-team this campaign, while Hamer and Hansson have both been called upon once in the same role. And even though Bijlow has yet to make an appearance, their collective inclusion in the Feyenoord first-team set up indicates the promise being shown, as all are nineteen years of age or younger. The future is still looking bright in Rotterdam.
You can read other articles in the series here