From player to youth social worker

From player to youth social worker

With a move to Hoofddorp, the Ajax StreetWise project has recently moved into the working territory of a former Ajax player. His name: Hennie Meijer. Once thought to be Marco van Basten’s replacement, he’s now a role model for young kids.

“Before the summer holidays, one of the guys asked me if he could make it as a professional football player. Well, I though, you’re about twenty kilos too heavy. Even if you’re a pretty good player, the kilos are a problem. That was my answer to him. Look, I’m 51 and overweight. That’s different than being overweight at sixteen. But guess what: after the summer, he had lost all of the weight. Now he’s playing in the B1 from Overbos, around the corner from here. Hats off to him.”
This was a memorable moment from Hennie Meijer’s professional life. A great moment, thinks Ajax’s former centre forward, because it says a lot about his work. It says that, as a social worker, he has a positive influence on kids. Of course, there are teenagers who couldn’t care less about what he’s trying to do for them. But this proved that he could also stimulate them and encourage them to change. “They listen to me.”

This is exactly what Sportservice Noord-Holland had in mind when they hired him half a year ago. They were looking for a role model, someone who kids would listen to. Meijer seemed to be the right candidate. A jovial, straightforward former football professional, with the build of a bouncer. Moreover, he has five kids himself. “So you know what makes kids tick.”

Meijer never studied for this job. After going to technical school, he earned his living as a professional football player. He’s played at, among others, Roda JC, Groningen, Heerenveen and Ajax, who took him over from Roda in 1987. Johan Cruijff, who was the coach at the time, saw in him a replacement for Marco van Basten, who had just left for AC Milan. What kind of centre forward did Cruijff bring in? “A good one”, says Meijer. “I was a point person, I was always there with my back to the goal. I was fast, reasonably technical, and scored easily. Our playing style then looked like how FC Barcelona plays now. I was played to and afterwards, the midfielders closed in. I would then take over and make a play myself.”

Meijer made a promising start in Amsterdam, but had a setback after the winter break. He became exhausted, missed opportunities and ended up on the back burner after Cruijff left. His successor Spitz Kohn didn’t believe in him, so Meijer only saw one option: to leave. His next club was Groningen, where he says to have experienced the best years of his career. “All of the pieces just fell into place with that team. Even the acquisitions did a good job. It was fantastic to experience that.”
From the glory years on the field, we return to Meijer’s daily life. For a large part, it still revolves around the ball. Not a day goes by during which the former player doesn’t enjoy the game. If it isn’t as a youth and seniors coach at Velserbroekse VSV, then it’s as a centre forwards coach at Telstar, assistant coach at De Kennemers in Beverwijk, a spectator for his sons or during his work as a youth social worker.

The last task is mainly executed in sports halls in several neighborhoods in Hoofddorp. Nice neighborhoods, but also infamous ones, such as the multicultural Graan voor Visch. “You could say that it’s a problem neighborhood. You couldn’t send just anyone here.” You can send him, though. He doesn’t balk at bringing mouthy teenagers up to scratch. “They keep testing you. So you need to stay on top of it. Some of them are irritable, but it’s a challenge to bring these kids in line, too.”
The Surinamese native is a pleasant person, always in for a laugh. This is a character trait that fits in with the words of his former coach Foppe de Haan. “He said that I had something childish in me.” Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he had such a good click with the youth of Hoofddorp. The activities that he runs are sometimes so popular that he has to turn away some disappointed kids. “Then I’ll hang a note on the door. ‘Sorry, the room is full’.

Although Meijer smiles a lot, he can be strict. “Recently, someone had been fooling around with the fire extinguisher, and the hallway was a mess. I sent everyone out of the room. There was most probably only one offender, but everyone had stood around and watched. Nobody tried to stop it. Next time, I want them to correct each other.”

The guilty person didn’t confess right away. It wasn’t until one month later that the kid came in with his tail between his legs to apologize for his bad behavior. “After that, it was OK.” That’s how Meijer is: “With me, everyone gets a second chance.”

The Ajax Foundation is organizing a football clinic on Wednesday, April 3, at the Burgemeester van Stamplein in Hoofddorp. Anyone who is interested can sign up as of 12:30p.m.
Ajax StreetWise is a project from the Ajax Foundation, supported by head sponsor AEGON. The Ajax Foundation aims to contribute to community issues such as social integration, education, sports and health. Ajax StreetWise does this by letting kids learn and play football together.