Published on Let's Talk Development

Johan Cruijff and European Migration

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For those of you who are not interested in soccer and for our young colleagues who are growing up with Messi and Ronaldo: Johan Cruijff was the best soccer player ever. At least according to his Dutch fans; skeptics can convince themselves here. As a player and coach he has won every conceivable prize for club teams, but he has become even more famous as an analyst. His judgments are so inscrutable for mere earthlings that his utterings are considered without exception as deep philosophical wisdoms. One of his more transparent quotes might give you already an impression: Soccer is simple, but it is difficult to play simple soccer. There must be deep insight also in Italians can't win the game against you, but you can lose the game against the Italians. People have collected over the years many more examples, but I want to discuss one of his more recent observations.

For that I need to give a bit of background. Four years ago he orchestrated a revolution at his old club Ajax. That revolution put former top players of Ajax in charge, all players that had excelled also in Italian, Spanish and British leagues. They decided to focus completely on their youth academy. They couldn’t compete with the astronomical amounts spent by British or Spanish clubs and stopped paying high salaries for established players. Instead, Ajax relies now completely on new talent graduating from its academy. Many fans were anxious when yet another one of the top players left for other—better paying—European leagues. And here Johan Cruijff came once again with his unfaultable insight. He argued that when Ajax would help players make career in top European leagues, it would make friends for life. These players would at some point come back to Ajax and share their rich experience, either as player or as trainer in the youth academy.

This is a great lesson for many ECA countries that experienced emigration after they integrated in the European markets. It is possible to turn the fear of brain drain into the opportunity of brain gain. The opportunity of a career all over Europe will motivate young people to develop their full potential. The drive for excellence will enable them to compete in European labor markets. That will increase the quality not only of workers that find jobs abroad, but also of workers that find jobs at home. Moreover, countries can benefit from their successful diaspora in many ways. This goes well beyond the short-term gains of remittances. The diaspora can bring back experience and technology. If countries are able to produce many successful workers, the country itself can become attractive too.

Ajax has won the Dutch title now three years in a row. Its youth academy is considered among the top in the world, and its team is getting closer and closer to the European top. Many Ajax players continue to get contracts at great clubs in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Britain. But increasingly players see also the advantage of staying with Ajax. Not a bad prospect for the Baltics, Bulgaria, or Romania. It is better to embrace European integration than to be scared of it.


Hans Timmer

Chief Economist, South Asia, World Bank

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