TFN’s resident Dutch football expert, Elko Born, looks at Clarence Seedorf’s appointment as the new AC Milan manager…
Clarence Seedorf made his Ajax-debut at the age of 16. Along with fellow Godenzonen like Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert, he won the Champions League a couple of years later.
Soon after, he embarked on a world tour, playing for Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Inter, A.C. Milan and Botafogo. He won the Champions League a total of four times, making him the only player ever to win the prestigious cup with three different clubs.
Last week, he retired from football to become A.C. Milan’s new manager at the age of 37.
In many ways, the appointment makes sense. Seedorf has a very friendly relationship with A.C. Milan’s owner Silvio Berlusconi, and what’s more, the fans in Italy adore him. Incongruently wise for his age, it’s always been obvious he possesses certain leadership qualities – Simon Kuper once described his personality as ‘an extreme version of the responsible eldest son’.
But it’s a bit of a strange one as well. Seedorf is only 37: he’s going to have to give orders to footballers only a few years younger than him. There’s always the danger this ‘extreme version of the responsible eldest son’ will rub people the wrong way. Furthermore, he has zero managerial experience, and at a big club like A.C. Milan, he’s not really allowed to make many mistakes. Indeed, Seedorf’s strange career path beckons a few questions.
Other players turned manager from his generation have taken a more obvious approach. Frank de Boer, for example, started as a youth coach at Ajax, before moving on to the Amsterdam outfit’s first team. Philip Cocu was a youth coach at PSV. He assisted former Holland manager Bert van Marwijk before becoming PSV’s manager. Jaap Stam, who took some time off after retiring from football, is currently defensive coach at Ajax. Patrick Kuivert is now assisting Holland manager Louis van Gaal.
With Dutch clubs like Ajax and PSV currently employing almost every former footballer from Seedorf’s generation in one coaching position or the other, giving them the time and space required to grow in experience, why has Seedorf never been part of this list?
To answer that question, we need to go back and highlight a couple of key moments from Seedorf’s footballing career, starting in 1995. Seedorf and Ajax’s Godenzonen had just won the Champions League, and aware as he was of his value in these new, post Bosman-arrest times, Seedorf refused to sign a new contract. He also had a public row with Ajax’s captain Danny Blind, who didn’t take kindly to some nineteen year old telling every one about tactics.
Even at the age of 19, Seedorf would talk to his teammates like he was their grandfather. ‘I didn’t see a 19-year-old,’ Dutch sportswriter Robert Heukels wrote in his book ‘De Godenzonen van Ajax: tien jaar later’ (‘Ajax’s sons of gods: ten years later’) in 2005, ‘I saw a young man who had developed so quickly that he was ahead of all the rest’.
Ajax decided to get rid of him and sold him to Sampdoria. But Seedorf didn’t do very well in Genoa. Part of the Dutch squad during Euro 1996, Seedorf missed a decisive penalty against France in the quarter final. A while later, in a world cup ’98 qualifier against Turkey, he missed another penalty. Already indefinitetely stamped as an annoying know-it-all, Seedorf was ridiculed by the Dutch public. Freek de Jonge, a famous Dutch comedian, even wrote a song about him. ‘What happened to Seedorf when he took the shot from 11 metres?’ he sang.
Then, Seedorf went on to become Holland’s most successful footballer, playing pivotal roles in A.C. Milan’s and Real Madrid’s Champions League winning teams. He garnered respect all over the world.
The relationship between Seedorf and the Dutch national team, however, would never be the same. Only once more, during Euro 2000, would Seedorf feature in a major international tournament. Marco van Basten, who became Holland manager in 2004, refused to call him up until Wesley Sneijder got an injury in 2006. Wary of his personality, however, Van Basten didn’t treat Seedorf very well. Seemingly to just make a point, he only used Seedorf as a substitute, asking him to go and warm up shortly before a match would end.
That’s no way to treat a man who is a superstar in Italy, Seedorf seemed to have thought. He publicly announced he was no longer willing to play for the Dutch national team under Van Basten. When Bert van Marwijk became Holland manager in 2008, he announced he was available again, but now it was Van Marwijk who refused to call him up. A rather inglorious end to his international career.
Now truly fed up by the way Dutch football treated him, Seedorf left for Brazil in 2012, where he would play for Botafogo and study for his coaching badges.
In the meantime, Ajax had gone through their ‘velvet revolution’, and Cruijff was now calling the shots. But while the legendary number 14 was keen to ask the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Jaap Stam to initiate their coaching careers in Amsterdam, he never asked Seedorf. It didn’t matter, though. Seedorf didn’t want to be asked. He was now a globetrotter, a gentleman of the world. Never would he return to the Netherlands.
It’s this man of the world A.C. Milan hired. To Seedorf, it seems like the old-school ‘know your place’ mentality of the likes of Cruijff is bit too small time. At A.C. Milan, they treat him as a legend. They appreciate his wisdom. In the Netherlands, fans, coaches and the media like simply dislike people who don’t know their place.