Back to the future
Probably the biggest game among the friendly internationals this week will be played in Rotterdam where Holland has invited France to open the celebrations of fifty years of professional football.
Ironically, the start of a proper league happened very much despite the Dutch federation, KNVB, who did everything in its power to delay the entrance of money into the game. In 1954 it submitted to pressure from press, players and several businessmen, who had started a succesfull league of their own.
Dutch football was averse to cash until well after World War II. The post-war years therefore saw an exodus of players like Faas Wilkes, Kees Rijvers and Bertus de Harder heading to France, Spain and Italy, to earn a salary with their favourite hobby. Leaving their own country also meant the end of their international careers.
The Dutch federation stubbornly refused to invite professionals for the Dutch team, which as a result saw a steady decline with only a single win between the summer of 1949 and the end of 1952, while average attendances at league matches also dropped with all the stars playing abroad. Although there was an increasing support to turn the game professional, the KNVB would have none of it. Then came a seemingly unrelated drama which would change the Dutch game entirely.
On the night of February 1st 1953, floods caused the death of almost two thousand people in the southwestern parts of the country and left many more homeless. Understandably distressed, the French-based players Bram Appel (Stade de Reims) and Theo Timmermans (Olympique Nimes) asked the French federation to organize a benefit match between the French national team and the Dutch.
The French chairman wholeheartedly agreed but the KNVB were reluctant to see their ailing team get a roasting in Paris. The professional players then suggested to form a Dutch XI of their own to play the French. The KNVB backed off, even refusing them orange shirts, and had their own benefit against Denmark in Amsterdam.
A full house saw yet another humiliating defeat, which added to the excitement of the Paris game a few days later. Although on a weekday 8,000 fans travelled for this unique opportunity to watch the best the country could offer, although they had to do without Faas Wilkes, who was not released by AC Torino.
|“||Surely Seedorf would play in every national team you can think of. Except in his own. Football probably has never known such an enigmatic player as this three-times Champions League winner. ”|
Even without him the team battled to a sensational 2-1 win, leaving the KNVB officials red-faced. They had asked the press not to write about the match, but afterwards enormous headlines celebrated the biggest football victory since the war. Along with it came an even bigger outcry to introduce professional football and bring back those top players to the league. The KNVB resisted as long as it could but the succes of a new federation, introducing payments and new clubs, forced them to merge and start a professional league in November 1954 also implying the return of the best players in the national team.
A full house in Stadion De Kuip this Wednesday will probably not contemplate about the historical significance of the match, but eagerly look forward to watch players like Zidane, Pires and Henry in the flesh. And, of course, their own team, who have not lost a friendly since a summer tour in Brazil five years ago. Absent with injuries are Arjen Robben, Patrick Kluivert and Jaap Stam, while Mario Melchiot and Paul Bosvelt return in the squad, although neither has been playing much at club level recently.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst, however, has excelled as a leftback during the meteoric rise of Barcelona in the Primera Division these months. National coach Dick Advocaat has overlooked him, probably because of earlier performances in an orange shirt, but strangely there is no invitation for any other left-sided defender. Michael Reiziger returns on the right, while Edgar Davids seems to be in great form and the engine of the Barca revival at the moment.
With Kluivert out and Ruud van Nistelrooy struggling along with his teammates at Manchester United, there might be room for Roy Makaay to show his Bundesliga form. 'Das Tor-Phantom', he is dubbed already in Germany, others speak of "FC Makaay". His goal in Berlin against Hertha BSC was another showcase for his ability to create a terrific goal out of nothing.
However there is one player at the moment who beats them all. Directing play from the midfield of the runaway leaders in the Serie A and one of the Champions League favourites AC Milan, Clarence Seedorf could now be in the form of his life.
Surely he would play in every national team you can think of. Except in his own. Football probably has never known such an enigmatic player as this three-times Champions League winner, the first one as a player for three different clubs.
Excellent at club level, but a notorious disappointment for his country. His participation in Euro 96 is mainly remembered for his being the only one to miss in the quarter-final penalty-shootout against France.
And tattooed in every Dutch football brain is the bravado with which he directed everyone away in a World Cup qualifier against Turkey when his team earned a penalty ten minutes from time, with the Dutch 1-0 down.
Just as in the Champions League-final shoot-out last year, he failed miserably. And neither the World Cup in France nor Euro 2000 have endeared Seedorf to his own people. Somehow he is never able to reach his club form at international level. His performances in the national colours have remained a mystery to the public as well as coaches.
The majority of his caps in recent years were earned as a substitute, yet he remains upbeat despite all the boos and whistles from the terraces. He is not one to shy away from the limelight and his confidence is the stuff of legends.
Coming on in the second half against the United States last month he immediately directed Rafael van de Vaart to the rightside of midfield, although he was supposed to play there himself. Advocaat was puzzled but saved his face afterwards by stating that he did not care as Seedorf played well. However, van der Vaart disappeared completely after the break.
So the biggest task Advocaat faces these months is to kiss and change the orange-colored frog Seedorf into a beautiful midfield prince who is able to direct the Dutch team into the later stages of Euro 2004.
Or he could go and have a look at how AC Milan organise their midfield. That could be the key to meeting France for a second time this year - on July 4 in the Stadium of Light in Lisbon, when of course the final will be played.