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Past, present and future

I don't believe in the existence of heaven, but if it there is one I'd certainly like to meet my grandfather. For the obvious reason of kinship, but also to see the look on his face when I tell him what happened in Dutch football after he passed away in January 1967.

He was a big football fan, a season ticket holder at Ajax for several years and a regular visitor of the national team when it played in Amsterdam.

A month before his death Ajax and Johan Cruyff showed their first glimpses of greatness with a 5-1 drubbing of Liverpool in the second round of the European Cup, but during his lifetime football in Holland was played by semi-professionals and before 1954 it was even an amateur sport.

Therefore, my Grandad had to endure a first round exit of Ajax against Frederikstadt of Norway in 1960 and, even more abysmal, Holland losing to Luxemburg in the European Championship as late as 1963.

The national team did not even compete for the World Cup in 1954 as the Dutch FA was afraid for an embarrassment in the qualifying round. That was how bad our football was at that time.

Cruyff came too late for my Grandad, although they did live only a couple of blocks from each other in Amsterdam in the fifties.

Myself, I first became aware of football outside the confines of our own street in the early months of 1970, only three years after my grandfather's death.

Immediately Feyenoord won the European Cup, followed by Ajax three times. Holland ruled the football world and it felt quite natural to me that the Dutch national team reached the final of the World Cup in 1974.

I was raised with Total Football. As a result I was not blown away by the high standard. I was used to it. In later years I found out that we actually were quite a small country with hardly any imprint on the football history before my time. The star player of the fifties, Abe Lenstra, would rather go fishing than play a World Cup qualifier.

So when I manage to meet my Grandad up there, I'd better make sure he sits down with a strong cup of coffee before I tell him about the successes and world class players our country has produced in the decades since his passing. He'll never believe me.

Something he did witness was what it was like to start a season with several title contenders. Between 1957, when the Eredivisie was founded, and 1966 no-less than six different clubs won the Dutch title.

In 1964 DWS of Amsterdam won the championship on the back of a promotion the year before. Sparta were ninth, first and then seventh again. Those were the days!

Since then the Dutch league has been dominated by Ajax and Feyenoord, then Ajax and PSV with a rare flare up by Feyenoord once in a while. Only in 1981 an outsider, AZ'67, ran away with the title.

Anno 2007 it looks like we are back where we started fifty years ago. After the nail-biting finish of the competition last May, when Ajax and AZ could have taken the title in the dying seconds by scoring just one goal, this season starts with four favourites.

The pack of last year is added with the Phoenix from Rotterdam. As mentioned in my recent column, Feyenoord have risen from their grave this summer and have signed no-less-than six Dutch internationals. They lost one as well in Romeo Castelen, to HSV Hamburg, but still have the talented Royston Drenthe on their books.

Either he excels in De Kuip this season or Real Madrid will take him for somewhere between ten and twenty million euro. Money that will come in handy as they are still looking for another striker to help Roy Makaay.

Feyenoord's squad has improved considerably while the three-horse-racers of last year did not.

AZ saw aging Shota Arveladze go. His experience and eye for the goal was crucial over the last two years. Louis van Gaal has put his confidence in two foreign signings: Ari, a Brazilian from Kalmar and youngster Graziano Pellè, who played for Lecce and the Italian Under-21 side. Six million euro Pellè is the biggest signing in AZ's history. They keep striker Danny Koevermans on the bench, which is surprising as he was club top-scorer last year and earned his first cap in June.

Van Gaal always insisted that his team was not strong enough for the title. In the end he was right, although they were only a goal away from it. Other honours eluded them as well, so he might have been afraid the squad reached its peak last season and could be on the way down if there is not any changing of the guards now. Koevermans is the main casualty, while Tim de Cler's transfer to Feyenoord went very quickly as well.

PSV will have a hard time to replace Phillip Cocu, who retired and Alex, who looks finally on his way abroad. This might be a transitional season in which Ibrahim Afellay and Timmy Simons have to find the best midfield partners out of youngsters like Ismail Aissati and Otman Bakkal or the more seasoned Edison Mendez, Jason Culina as well as new signings Mike Zonneveld (NAC Breda) and life-long supporter Tommie van der Leegte (VfL Wolfsburg).

Up front Danko Lazovic is new from Vitesse Arnhem, while the good news is that Jefferson Farfan nor Arouna Koné have left.

Finally, Ajax face life without Ryan Babel. Babel could never fulfil the great expectations within the club, so it was surprising the club earned much more for him than they ever asked for their biggest asset Wesley Sneijder.

However, Babel did excel during the summer's European Under-21 Championships and if coached well and not pressured, could improve a lot at Liverpool. With Kennedy Bakircioglu and Laurent Delorge Ajax have added some penetrating midfielders to their squad, while Dennis Rommedahl should bring speed on the flank.

Insiders consider Ajax as the main favourites for the title as PSV and AZ are trying to rejuvenate their teams. Feyenoord suddenly posses the most experience, but have to start from scratch. Their main advantage is not playing in a European competition. The others face several midweek trips before the winter break.

I am not sure whether any team is strong enough to survive Christmas in Europe like in recent years. However, the days when Dutch teams were welcomed as pushovers at European Cup draws are fortunately over, while the league looks as interesting as when it started fifty years ago.

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