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I will show my age with these words… But one of the most underrated players from the legendary WC1974 team was Wim Jansen. Defensive midfielder of Feyenoord. Robin to Van Hanegem’s Batman. And the glue that kept the Oranje 1974 team together. We had marauding Neeskens in midfield, conniving playmaker Van Hanegem and shining star JC up front. Wim Jansen kept the balance. For the young ones amongst us: see JC as Messi, Van Hanegem as Iniesta and Wim Jansen as Busquets. Very important for the team. Always diligent. Always aware. And always timing his challenges and positioning to perfection.
Another way for Wim to stand out was for being in the background and avoiding the spotlights. JC was the messiah, John Rep the face, Neeskens the gladiator and Van Hanegem the rock star. Wim Jansen was the quiet one.
After his long standing career at Feyenoord, Jansen played in the US (like Cruyff and Van Hanegem) and returned to Holland, to be lured to a very young and talented Ajax by Cruyff, to guide talents like Rijkaard. He was one of the first to don both jerseys and when Mr Feyenoord returned to De Kuip for an away game with Ajax, a so-called “supporter” threw an ice ball (it was winter time) on his face, damaging his eye. Jansen didn’t play that day.
He coached his beloved Feyenoord, set up the youth academy, coached Celtic with success and kept on working with youth all his life.
It’s common knowledge that Cruyff and Van Hanegem had a tremendous relationship on the pitch and deep respect for one another, but personality-wise, they were too different. Van Hanegem would call Cruyff on his BS and Cruyff felt Van Hanegem was a loose cannon. They didn’t spend much social time together. De Kromme: “Cruyff was the best ever, but I wouldn’t go to his birthday party. I wish him well but I’m not part of his coterie.”
Cruyff: “People say I was the best player, but if I played bad, I was useless for the team. Willem however, would hussle and battle and tackle if he didn’t play too well.”
Jansen and Van Hanegem were good friends. Lived in the same street in HI Ambacht (my home town, one block away from me) and shared duties at amateur club ASWH and played tennis locally. They were a tremendous team on the pitch.
The terminally ill success coach Ernst Happel, De Kromme and Wim Jansen
However, Jansen and Cruyff were best buddies. They had an understanding beyond words (on the pitch and off) and developed their football vision in conjunction. Cruyff with a focus on top level football (Ajax, Barcelona and indirectly AC Milan, Arsenal, Liverpool and Man
United) while Jansen focused on youth development.
If there is one guru in youth football today in Holland, it’s him. And if there is one guy the Dutch federation should have asked for advice to help patch up our football identity, it was him. But instead, the KNVB appointed former goalie Hans van Breukelen (who never coached in his life), who in turn went on to give out job offers to former waterpolo, volleyball and ice-skating coaches… Luckily, all of them turned the job down, under pressure from the many football pundits in Holland.
Some background on that KNVB strategy: when it was clear we were heading towards a quality gap in the post Van Marwijk days (post Van Persie/Vaart/Sneijder/Robben/Van Bommel/Van Bronckhorst) and we missed the Euro 2016 tournament, the federation decided to make plans.
They decided to appoint a Technical Director (up until then, former burocrat Bert van Oostveen made the strategic technical decisions!!) and kick start a think tank of people to come up with a strategy going forward.
That, in itself, was a good idea. But the execution wasn’t that wonderful. They picked Hans van Breukelen (over people like Henk ten Cate, Rene Meulensteen, Wim Jansen, Marcel Brands, Martin van Geel, Co Adriaanse) and created think tank with 20+ people. This obviously resulted in a committee report full of cliches, but without cojones. Design by committee.
With the key objective: “Oranje to be back at the world top in 2026!”. WTF!!!
Finally, Wim Jansen – who declined to be part of that Think Tank for obvious reasons – has agreed to an interview to give us his views. It makes for compelling reading and I invite you to share your thoughts…. From the daily newspaper De Telegraaf:
“Dutch football wants to go back to the top, but the KNVB appears to have taken the wrong exit, according to Wim Jansen. He played two World Cup finals for Holland, co-developed Dutch world domination with Feyenoord and Oranje and developed the top class youth academy at Feyenoord (and indirectly: Ajax). “I don’t do this interview for me, but for the top talents we do have and who deserve the best treatment.”
He is not interested in reading the KNVB report “Winner of Tomorrow” anymore. He knows it by heart. And he doesn’t like it. The KNVB objective is to be world class again in 2026. “But you will need to act on it now, then. But the emphasis is on physical and mental development. Higher demands on our defenders. These ideas are far removed from what is needed to be the absolute top.”
“Our football culture and style have been copied for 50 years now, by other nations. They all came to Holland to see how we do things. And now, our Federation is telling us to abandon this vision. They want to change what we do without any guarantee this will work. This strategy is irresponsible.”
“Physical and mental development are not the foundation of football. They are merely in service of football. It can never be leading. If you can’t play, physical strength and mental strength will bring you nothing. Top football is done on the basis of ball skills, technique, tactics and team play. Those ingredients will make a team top. Look at Spain, Germany.. Two top nations. Are Iniesta, Xavi, Griezmann, Ozil, De Bruyne so strong physically and mentally? is that what you think of them when you think of them? Or see them play? It’s their ball control and vision.”
Wim Jansen is still honing his skills. He is never ready with learning. He is still in charge of Feyenoord’s youth academy and works with the nations top academics in the field of neuro-psychology (Professor Scherder) and mobility sciences (Professor Savelsbergh) and is working on talent development day and night.
And this is where his biggest beef sits. The KNVB does not want to make the distinction between top football and recreational football. He agrees with Johan Cruyff for years and has had hour long debates about the development of football in Holland. Years ago, both stated with conviction that clubs need to develop pro-football and the Federation should develop recreational football.
The KNB has changed the training foundation of youth teams by adopting the so-called Twin Games. Teams split and playing on smaller pitches or even quarter pitches. “Unacceptable,” Jansen says. “Our new plan at youth level is now playing on quarter pitches? Why? The current system (7 v 7 on half pitches, 9 v 9 from box to box or 11 v 11 on full pitches) is the best. This will give young players a sense of space. Football is a game of time and space. The smaller the space at youth level, the harder the step up. The KNVB says they make the pitch smaller to copy the old street football from way back. As if “size of the pitch” is key. Its not. Street football was all about being able to play whenever you wanted. You learn things in street football, like dealing with bad surfaces, or playing with obstacles, like sewer manholes or curbs. Or pebbles, or street cobbles being uneven. I played street football but my friends didn’t make me better. I started to become better when I played in the Feyenoord youth with bigger players on a full pitch. And playing real matches, against top teams. So you need to bring talent together as young as possible and make them train together and play against other top talents. Your individual skills can be improved on the street, like Brazilian players learn ball control on the beach and with bare feet. But the development of becoming a team player is on a real pitch, actual size. The biggest ball magicians will fail once they have to play on a real pitch, because space can be your friend or your enemy. Remember John de Bever and Arie Riedijk? They were the best futsol players in the world, at one stage. Incredible technique. But the failed to make the step up to real football.
Jansen vs Cruyff
Football on a big pitch changes the game, it’s another dimension and the big pitch is the real judge and jury for football talents. In practice, you can work on technique and handling speed, but top football is played on 7000 square meters. So take the shortest route to that. If you want to attack, the first thing a coach will say is to find the space. Make the pitch wide, so you can move into space. If you need to defend, you make the pitch smaller.”
Jansen shakes his head… “The KNVB says we need to learn to defend better… I think it’s the other way around. 80% of our attacks come to nothing. I think we need to improve there. And the sooner the better. And don’t forget: as long as you have the ball, they can’t score. And you don’t need to defend. Do you think Luis Enrique at Barca is figuring out ways to defend better?”
Wim Jansen thinks the emphasising on defensive qualities is misplaced. “Remember the last classic between Feyenoord and Ajax. Ajax is leading, 1-0. It’s only 5 minutes on the clock. The tallest defender of Ajax, Dijks, marks the Feyenoord forward on the wrong side. The result, he is half a yard late when the cross comes in. Kuyt is able to dive to the ball right across him and scores. A little mistake, with a big result. It had nothing to do with physical strength. But everything with positioning, reading the game, vision and feeling for space. At that point, the smaller Kuyt won against the big, strong Dijks.”
Jansen himself was 35 years old playing as sweeper of Ajax, next to Rijkaard. In the winter of his career, he wasn’t the tallest nor the quickest. But he was one of the smartest.
At Varkenoord, Feyenoord’s youth complex, he visits the clinics of the new talents. “These kids come play here for the first time. And what do they do? Dribble. And the first thing you notice is that their eyes are on the ball. So the first thing we teach them is to look over the ball. Trust your skills and keep your head up to see where the free man is, or where the space is, or what the opponent does. The next phase is, to let them make decisions. We give them free reign. He can pass, dribble or take on an opponent. We don’t tell them what to do. As long as they do. They need to decide themselves but they do need to learn to look for space.”
Jansen mentoring Rijkaard
This is the exact opposite of the KNVB vision who want to see kids play on small pitches and force them to pass. “If you want to give them lots of ball touches, give them all a ball. That is what we do, partially. But the match is leading. Whether you’re 7 or 10. The match determines how good you really are and what you need to develop. And things you can’t do in a game, you start to work on in practice. It’s not like the training determines the match. It’s actually the other way around. The match determines what to train on. In reality, there’s 22 players and only one will have the ball. 21 players won’t have the ball. And they need to work on playing without the ball. Moving, finding space, positioning, this is so important.”
Every pro club in Dutch football needs to have a full youth academy. There are clubs now that don’t. Jansen: “What is our license committee doing? You shouldn’t be allowed to play pro football without a youth division. If you want to reach the top, you need to demand more from the clubs.”
“Why is Max Verstappen a world class F1 driver at 18 years old? Because he learned how to drive a cart and learned listen to the car from when he was 4 years old! Its not like he started driving an F1 car after getting his driving license. Max is competing in F1 now coz he started early. The ages between 6 and 18 are the years in which a talent develops into a real player. That is 12 years of development. Every day that he doesn’t learn something is a day lost. Being a pro player is a craft. A profession. And they need practice as much as possible. There is scientific proof that a kid learns best between 6 and 12 years old. You can teach players patterns very easily. And they do pick up the most from other players. I played with top players, like Cruyff, Van Hanegem, Israel, Kraay, Moulijn and boy did I learn.
People underestimate the profession of being a pro footballer. You need to have so many skills, it takes so many details. And you need to see and be able to execute it. Every time again. If it was easy, we had 1000s of Arjen Robbens, because everyone wants to be a world class player. But, we only have one. That tells you enough.
“Today the youth teams of PSV, Feyenoord beat their opponents easily. But when they play international tournaments, they get often beaten. They learn more from their defeats than from winning. But we see less and less talents. Ajax and Feyenoord keep on winning youth academy awards but in the last two games I saw Ajax play (in the Eredivisie) I only saw four players that were developed in The Netherlands….”
Wim Jansen scores vs AC Milan, semi finals Europa Cup