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Sep 1, 2009

A tale of what might have been

Lionel Messi was recently priced at 300m euros. So when you see him walking down the street, make sure you do not hurt him in any way. It might cost you an arm, a leg and probably all of your belongings for the rest of your life should the ensuing injuries finish his career. On the pitch, a red card and a suspension used to be the severest punishment for kicking any, talented or not, opponent into retirement. A Dutch victim of the rough and tough times of 1980s football thought otherwise, sued his assaillent and eventually won the case.

Talented Roda JC winger Danny Hoekman was on the verge of playing for the Dutch national team in April 1987, when he beat the offside trap running on to a long ball in the closing minutes of a game against FC Utrecht as the teams fought to qualify for European football.

A deft touch was enough to knock the ball past oncoming keeper Jan-Willem van Ede. It hit the post. In the meantime Van Ede's late tackle with a stretched leg hit Hoekman on his left knee. The referee did not notice as he was following the ball and did not even give a free-kick, but the tackle halted a very promising career. At 18, Hoekman had passed on the opportunity to go to West Ham United, whose manager John Lyall said that the then NEC player could be the next Jesper Olsen, only much cheaper.

"This injury I have only seen with people who were ran over by a big truck. Alles kaputt", commented the surgeon after the operation. Hoekman needed a year to recover and would never lose the pains in his knee. Yet he was determined to pursue his career. Eight years later he was still playing in the lower reaches of the Eredivisie and had even played a few games at Manchester City.

In 1997 his body just could not cope with the game anymore and he had to quit playing. Over the last ten years, Hoekman has been a coach on several continents, had a couple of other jobs and even worked as a golf teacher.

Hoekman is one of millions of footballers who never fulfilled their high expectations, but the first to start a civil case against an opponent. He had to pay for his recovery in the specialised French health care centre out of his own pocket in 1988 and spoke with a lawyer to see whether this money could be claimed from his assaillant, Jan-Willem van Ede.

When Hoekman began to face the fact that his battered knee would keep him out of the top echelon, they took the next step. The tackle of the keeper was clearly the cause of his declining career. There would be no transfers to big European clubs nor any games in the Dutch national team.

In court Van Ede and his club FC Utrecht denied any wrongdoing. They claimed the referee did not even react on the tackle, so what was the problem? The judge asked for more evidence. Hoekman managed to procure footage from the scene, edited this to a slow-motion film and showed it to the court.

It made clear that Van Ede was too late with his tackle and did not do anything to prevent contact with his opponent. His high-raised boot went straight onto Hoekman's knee. Clearly, the FC Utrecht keeper had never intended to cripple anyone, but it did not help that he suggested that he only wanted to play the ball. Van Ede is right-footed but injured Hoekman with his left. The judge could therefore conclude that his main intention had been to stop the player and not the ball, while taking the risk of injuring him. He installed a panel of football experts to decide whether this tackle stretched the level of foul play a player may expect on the pitch.

Former referee Leo van der Kroft, ex-striker Jan Mulder and former Feyenoord player Keje Molenaar, who has a law degree, were united in their judgement. It was an extremely dangerous tackle, there was no intention to play the ball and no attempt by Van Ede to limit the damage on his opponent.

They concluded that the action of the keeper went far beyond the acceptable level of body contact in a football game. The judge followed their advice and forced Van Ede and FC Utrecht to pay compensation. There was no appeal from the club. Perhaps they were resigned to their fate or just forgot; that remains a mystery, but in 2003 an special agent started fixing the fee.

They held several interviews with experts from the game, coach Co Adriaanse and technical director of PSV Jan Reker for instance, to account how much financial income Hoekman had missed because of the injury. Adriaanse believed the player, whom he rated as quite special, would have had a long career in the national team, which may have led to several years in a well-paying league abroad.

Reker also assumed that such a playing career, and a possible winner's medal at Euro 88, might have benefited his coaching career enormously. Instead of starting as a technical director at SV Hatert in the lower amateur league, which Hoekman did in 1998, his reputation would have propelled him immediately into the upper levels of the Eredivisie, as contemporaries like Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten experienced.

Twenty years after FC Utrecht refused to pay the bill of the health centre for about 25,000 guilders, both parties faced each other in court again. Taking into consideration the list of what-might-have-beens - star player, top coach and now probably a technical director at a top club - Hoekman ended up with a claim of 12m euros. FC Utrecht came back with a proposal of 1.5m euros, which was unacceptable for Hoekman. Then, under the new owner/investor Frans van Seumeren, the club decided to cut its losses and proposed a fee which could satisfy Danny Hoekman, not someone to give in very easily. It is still undisclosed, but it will be somewhere between 5m and 10m euros.

It remains difficult to asses the repercussions of this case for the future of football. Salaries have risen high since Hoekman's days so deliberately kicking a national team player out of the game seems hardly insurable.

What fee can an insurance company charge to cover the damage of a crazy tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo? How much will they pay out? Maybe players have to sign a waiver not to press civil charges. One wonders whether the professional foul could be history once this verdict kicks in the international football world.


A book on the Hoekman affair by Jan Brouwer de Koning called "Buitenspel, Danny Hoekman, de prijs van de doodschop" (Offside, the price to pay for a late tackle) has been published in Holland. It is published by Totemboek, Amsterdam 2009, who are credited for the above photos.

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