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What the Johan Cruyff Courts Can Teach Us About Youths Sports Organizing in Amsterdam

Hidden between a primary school and the 53 Metroline in the struggling Bos En Lommer neighborhood of West Amsterdam lies a small soccer court.  It is filled with young boys, who chase their dreams of becoming the next Johan Cruyff in the late spring sunshine.  The children interact playfully and calmly; yet, they are acting in a competitive environment.

This quaint yet vibrantly green and orange court, privately contributed by the Johan Cruyff Foundation (JCF), serves children of diverse ethnic backgrounds.  On the large fence surrounding the court hangs a sign listing Johan Cruyff’s 14 rules of football and life. The children especially seem to abide by the first rule: “You can do nothing on your own, you have to do it together.”  However, in light of the recent statement by the Dutch cabinet regarding immigration policy, the same cannot be said of the government’s ideas when it comes to “Dutch values.”  In a letter to the House of Representatives on Integration, Engagement and Citizenship on June 17, 2011, Dutch Minister of the Interior Piet Hein Donner made an official statement: “The Dutch multicultural society has failed.  Integration is no longer the responsibility of the public authorities but rather of those who decide to settle in the Netherlands.  Every citizen is expected to contribute to Dutch society by taking responsibility for their subsistence, for their living environment and for society as a whole.”  In other words, immigrants are expected to learn Dutch values on their own.

Such policy debate on integration is not new to the Netherlands, nor to the Bos En Lommer community.  In 2007, the Ministry of Integration and Housing under Ella Vogelaar listed Bos En Lommer as one of the forty most problematic neighborhoods in the Netherlands.  Two years later, in a report called De Baat op Straat, the Ministry of Economic Affairs evaluated the effectiveness of making social and physical investments in these particular neighborhoods.  The report suggested that private organizations should invest in the physical aspects of a community (i.e. social housing, renovations, and maintenance), rather than social aspects (i.e. neighborhood committees, community events).

In this light, the JCF stands out to us as a private organization that invests in both kinds of neighborhood infrastructure.  Driven by the question, “What can be done to mobilize local youth?” world-famous Dutch soccer player Johan Cruyff founded the JCF to develop different initiatives that would give youths the opportunity to play soccer together.  The initiative for which the foundation is best known is the so-called Johan Cruyff Courts (JCC), which represent an attempt to improve the conditions of poor neighborhoods in the Netherlands.  As we sat down with Bobby Gehring, the account manager of the JCF, he explains, “We do not try to make children better athletes by giving them these courts.  We try to give children an opportunity to play and interact with one another.” Accordingly, JCF states that the JCC should serve as a place for interaction between children and youth (2-23 years old) of different backgrounds and cultures.  In this way, children learn to respect one another by engaging in sports.  Bobby emphasizes, “The Johan Cruyff Courts should be seen as a safe place for children. Children should feel comfortable at the court and see it as a place where they can be themselves.”

The organization rests upon three pillars of the government’s athletics policy: (1) to motivate children to play sports; (2) to develop a space where people from the surrounding area can meet and interact; and (3) to bridge the gap between organized and non-organized sports; that is, to motivate children to join a sports club by giving them greater access.  Since its inception, the JCC has gone through a period of rapid growth.  Today, the foundation has created over 150 courts worldwide.  “Although we act global, our focus remains on a national level,” Bobby clarifies.  Municipalities can apply for a JCC, but several criteria must be met.  “The JCF takes all sorts of measures into account to check whether a court is needed in an area.  We ask questions like ‘Are there enough kids?’  ‘Is there a school?’  ‘Is there a sports club nearby?’  ‘Are there social houses?’”  Bos en Lommer went through this procedure in 2005 and received a court, which still serves youths today.  The provision of a court to Bos En Lommer so early in the process speaks to its well-known status as a “problem” neighborhood.

While observing and speaking to the youths on the well-kept JCC in Bos En Lommer, we see evidence of Cruyff's strong belief that “Soccer is the easiest way of communicating.” The positive impact of soccer has shaped the identities of these adolescents. As Bobby Gehring from JCF says, “We've chosen soccer as a sport because it is the easiest sport to play. Soccer is easily accessible to all children, even if your skills are not that good.”  On the court, we see an illustration of this statement.  Children of different ages and backgrounds are forming teams together to play a six-on-six game.  In observing the youths, we see that it is not only about the game, but also very much about the court as a social learning space.  Brian Benjamin, a community sports organizer and city council member, agrees in this respect:  “Soccer teaches youths about teamwork, how to deal with criticism, lead, respect each other and maintain healthy lifestyles.”  The Bos en Lommer court provides some clear examples of this process.

As the younger children arrive at the court just past dinnertime, they are speaking Turkish with one another.  Yet, when players of different descent join them on the court, they automatically switch to Dutch. This is a perfect illustration of Rule #4: “Integrate others into your activities.”  Later, it starts to get busier and the children organize themselves into mixed teams.  In this process, it is clear to us who the leaders are.  The hierarchy on the field is determined by age.  Daniël, a 12-year-old boy of Ghanaian descent, underlines this, “Most of the times the same kids are making up the teams. It is always the older ones.” Daniel does not seem to be bothered by it.  According to him, “it is the way youths interact.”

Another example is the moment that we enter the court to join a group of younger kids in a game of soccer. Once we step onto the courts, the older players on the field approach us to negotiate the organization of a larger game utilizing the entire field.  As our game attracts more players, the youths take the initiative to delegate newcomers to different teams. In doing so, they reveal the degree to which they have developed these problem-solving skills through experiences on this very court.

From a close distance, two parents are observing the children play. The parents, both of Turkish descent, are more than willing to share their opinions on the role of JCC in their children’s lives.  Ismit says, “My children play here frequently. It is important to get them out of the house and into contact with other children. The council does not do much in this area, so this court gives my children the opportunity to play and meet other children.”  Both parents seem rather positive about the court, stating that it is one of the few things in the neighborhood that keeps their children off the streets.  However, the fields are inferior to better-funded ones.  Ismit concludes, “The council should do more to make better use of the court by organizing tournaments and train the youths.”  They seem to want more than just a pretty court.

A touchier subject is whether their children are Dutch or Turkish. Ismit answers, ‘My children were born in the Netherlands, thus they are Dutch. There is no need to talk about their background or where they are from.”  However, when the youths are asked where their roots lie, they seem to associate more with the country where their parents come from. When asked which country they would support during the World Cup, all children answer that they would support their country of descent over the Netherlands. The majority of children would also opt to play soccer for the national team of that country. The one exception is Daniel, who says, “I would choose to play for the Netherlands, because it would increase my chances of winning the World Cup.”

Observing the developments on and around the pitch, we begin to understand some of Ismit's comments about the lack of organization in how the space is managed.  Later in the evening, the older youths seem to be taking over the court.  By about seven o'clock, they dominate entirely.  “The younger boys leave the court by that time because the older boys just shoot too hard,” says Daniel.  It is not only the younger children who see this as a problem; the parents recognize it as well.  “When the young kids leave the atmosphere turns more aggressive. In the past we had to deal with some inconvenience caused by the older ones,” says a neighborhood parent.  These older teenagers seem to use the court as a place to hang out and impress their friends (while filming, we were respectfully but firmly asked to not point the camera at them). All of these observations illustrate the tensions that exist, raising the question of whether the courts are truly safe for the younger youths.

As mentioned, the main reason why the JCF invests in soccer is that it is a game for everyone.  However, this rationale has been a point of contention for others in the field of community youth organizing.  According to Brian Benjamin, “To promote soccer is ridiculous.  It doesn’t make any sense—you don’t need money for that.  It is one of the sports they shouldn’t promote.  They are providing a non-expensive sport for low socio-economic people.  Why not promote something like basketball?  You have to think about the value added to your investment.”

Tarik Yousif, the founder and creative director of the youth organization Creative Urbans (also located in West Amsterdam), gives a cultural critique of the matter, “I am moved by discussions in America about the way in which basketball, American football, and also hip-hop is more or less ‘managed’.”  Here, he is referring to concerns that exist in the American context in regards to the domestication of black male culture through the celebration of black athletes and rappers.  Michael Jordan, for example, has become an iconic face for the African-American community.  His mastery of basketball has become a metaphoric focal point for black culture in the American imagination.  Such over-celebration and over-investment related to black athleticism as a source of clan pride, as witnessed in the U.S., is something that Tarik worries about when it comes to soccer with communities of color in Amsterdam.  “Youngsters that I have talked to have expressed that a project like the Johan Cruyff Courts are managing a game that already belongs to them.  In some ways, I suspect the youngsters just want to play the game.”  He wonders whether there should be more of an effort to preserve the cultural significance of soccer in ethnic communities.

Brian is not as worried about the loss of an authentic sport culture, “There’s a difference between the Johan Cruyff Courts and organizing street basketball.  Organizing to maintain a sense of competitiveness in the game is important.”  Rather, for Brian, the largest shortfall of the Johan Cruyff project is its lack of cooperation with schools.  Brian says, “For me it is definitely a health issue.  But the students have to understand how to live a healthier life.  You do this through physical education.”

While the JCF works hard to provide access to soccer for underprivileged youths, little is done to educate those kids who are using the courts. It prefers to build them near schools in order to allow easy access for students, yet does little to link the schools to those courts.  Bobby reiterates, “We don’t concentrate on sports education because the ultimate goal is not to train better athletes.  We are here to provide children a place to have fun and be healthy, so they are not playing on their computers all the time." 

For Brian, mere access is not enough.  Because many middle-level vocational schools have lost their physical education programs due to budget cuts, he believes that there is more of a need to educate when it comes to athletics: “We need to stimulate and educate.  Stimulation alone is not enough.  A sustainable community program is one that provides the tools.”  In his own sports program, he works with first-year students in middle-vocational schools.  Not only does the program provide facilities and equipment, but there is also a strong emphasis placed on education.  The coaches act as mentors for students, who develop their own action plans, and they help them stick to these plans through follow-up meetings.

Amidst the hostile climate of Dutch political discourse, the legitimacy and funding of initiatives like the Johan Cruyff Courts have come under attack.  Bobby admits that the biggest challenge that the foundation will face in the upcoming years is “maintaining the idea of the Cruyff Courts as new and vibrant” in the public eye.  But he feels that, more than ever, physical, social and educational investments in sports are necessary. Commenting on Donner’s statement, Brian Benjamin says, “Dutch society has not failed, it has changed.  Nobody is able to do anything on his or her own.  We should look at school and sports clubs.  Why?  Because you have people who are really motivated to participate in social activities.  If it comes to participation, the government must see that people of lower socio-economic statuses are playing sports a lot less.  It is the government’s responsibility to address that.  From then on, it should be a natural selection.”  With this statement, Brian shows that he is continuing to give agency to the youths who choose to devote their time to soccer.

As we look back at the development of the Johan Cruyff Foundation over the past eleven years, we must commend their tremendous achievements. From what we have observed, the Courts successfully serve as a space for youths to take on multiple roles.  The children we watched and spoke with were dynamically engaged with each other, while at the same time balancing traditional standards of behavior with the discipline required by the game. Johan Cruyff continues to be a household name in the Netherlands.  But, as JCF makes plans to expand and modify its programming, we would like to offer some recommendations:

As it stands now, sports continues to be classified as an extracurricular activity in the Dutch school system, meaning that youths come to the Johan Cruyff Courts after school hours and on weekends.  Because their investment in the game is rarely honored, harnessed or even recognized in the public domain, youths are not making the connection between their identities on the field and their identities as students.  Due to Johan Cruyff’s hands-off policy, the opportunities that should be available to Amsterdam’s most dispirited group of youth remain largely untapped.  In order for the JCF to maximize its effectiveness, it should make an effort to use soccer as a way of guiding motivated and dedicated young people toward other avenues of success in society.  Many of the critical thinking tools  necessary for young people to confront and overcome persistent racial and social inequities are already embedded in the game of soccer; as such, the JCF should capitalize upon the participation and enthusiasm of its youth in providing both community and educational support.

As we make such recommendations, however, we also recognize how important it is to implement these changes with care.  As Tarik has rightfully pointed out, it is critical that soccer's popular appeal not be overvalued.  Instead, we should view investment in these youth as a chance to teach them other skills, which ultimately create a broader set of opportunities.  This is not to say that sports alone can improve the conditions of urban schools.  It is rather that, if we can effectively tap into these kinds of efforts on the part of our youth, we may also begin to curb some of the trends that are currently destroying many children's educational aspirations.

In this regard, sport continues to be a focal point of inquiry, as a cultural tool which demands deeper investigation.  Some of the students who are miserable and currently failing in our public school system — as well as within larger Dutch society — are investing themselves in soccer.  If we are willing to more thoroughly investigate the nature and underpinnings of such investment, we will be on our way to a better understanding of how to meet those children's needs.

Sources

Interviews

Benjamin, Brian. City Council Member. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 28, 2011.

Gehring, Bobby. Accountmanager Cruyff Courts. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 28, 2011.

Ismit. Parent of young soccer player. Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 21, 2011.

Yousef, Tarik. Creative Director of Creative Urbans. Amsterdam, June 24, 2011.

Youths (unnamed). Soccer players on Johan Cruyff Court. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2011.

Books

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey M.R. What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher: Lessons Urban Schools Can Learn from a Successful Sports Program.  New York:  Peter Lang, 2010. 

Articles

Marlou, Visser. “Donner: Afscheid van Multiculturele Samenleving Nederland.” Elsevier, June 16, 2011. http://www.elsevier.nl/web/Nieuws/Politiek/300160/Donner-Afscheid-van-multiculturele-samenleving-Nederland.htm.

Breedveld Koen, Romijn David and Cevaal Astrid.  “Scoren op het Cruyff Court Winnen in de Wijk.”  W.J.H. Mulier Institute.  2009.

Websites

Johan Cruyff Foundation. http://www.cruyff-foundation.org/smartsite.net?id=NL.

Other

Integration Policy Based on Dutch Values. Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. http://www.government.nl/documents-and-publications/press-releases/2011/06/17/integration-policy-based-on-dutch-values.html.

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