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Oct 13, 2009

AZ can bank on trouble ahead

Taking pictures at a press conference is not unusual, but when it is a chairman capturing the press corps for his scrap book you can only smile wryly.

This happened when AZ Alkmaar held a press conference the day before the first group game of their Champions League campaign against Olympiakos in Greece this season, with club owner Dirk Scheringa capturing the moment and not minding that he looked slightly foolish.

His millions and the sponsorship by his DSB Bank had taken the provincial club from the second division to the European stage, so he was eager to saviour his moment in the sun. Unfortunately, like Icarus, he may have flown too close to it and within a week Scheringa lost his wings. When the DSB skating team held a press conference to preview the new season at the end of September, Scheringa left halfway through to avoid nasty questions from the gathered economic journalists about his bank's safety.

This week the Dutch National Bank took control of DSB after a run, when a large number of people withdraw their deposits in fear of losing their money. Suddenly the future of the current Dutch champions looks bleak and that is without even discussing their poor league form.

Recent events have an interesting parallel in the history of the club. In 1972, AZ, or then AZ '67, were staring bankruptcy in the face when the brothers Cees and Klaas Molenaar stepped in. Both were former players who were making a fortune with their electric appliance shop Wastora in Alkmaar. They proved to be shrewd businessmen who made their name with the sale of cheap washing machines in the 60s and cashed in when colour tv and hi-fis became affordable for working people in the 70s.

In those days, shirt sponsorship was not allowed but Wastora made good use of the commercial value of football. They issued a door-to-door weekly in which football news was mixed with their ads. One trick was to put an unbelievably low price on one colour tv set in the paper. People from everywhere jumped in their cars to buy one. Arriving at the store they found this bargain to have duller colours than several others on display and many travelling shoppers were easily tempted to take the more expensive models, not knowing that Wastora employees had been instructed to fiddle with the knobs on the cheap tellies.

The Molenaar brothers were not only smart businessmen. They appointed several good coaches and secured some smart signings during the 70s, culminating in Dutch Cup victories in 1977, 1981 and 1982 as well as the title and an UEFA Cup final in 1981. Unfortunately, Cees Molenaar would miss the club's crowning glory as he died of leukemia in 1979. Remaining brother Klaas lost interest after 1982, partly because the club was never really accepted by football fans, not even in the region, as the smell of money was too obvious.

When AZ '67 did not manage to stay at the top their attendance rapidly fell to around 5,000. In 1986, Klaas left the club and in 1988 they returned to the second division.

AZ did not come close to promotion in the following years, then lightning struck for a second time in Alkmaar. When the club's financial position became shaky, Scheringa was at hand to make his Frisia Bank the club's shirt sponsor for a bargain deal. After a couple of years he took the chairman's seat and plotted to bring the club back into the Eredivisie.

This proved difficult as Scheringa's recruitment record was far from impressive, but when trainer Co Adriaanse started in 2003 the club turned the corner and finally found the road to success, culminating in a UEFA Cup semi-final in 2005. They were only seconds away from the final in Lisbon, but a last-gasp corner by Sporting was bundled over the line.

After this heartbreaking elimination Adriaanse decided to go. His act seemed a hard one to follow, but perhaps the only man capable of doing even better job agreed to come: Louis van Gaal. Born and bred nearby and still living in the vicinity of the stadium, Van Gaal came agonisingly close to the title in 2007, and even missed qualification for the Champions League after an improbable scenario on the final matchday.

In the meantime, Scheringa had converted his loans to the club into stock and built a brand new stadium, although his initial plan for a shopping complex at the ground on the outskirts of town fell through. Yet, he may have put between €50-70 million into the club over the years.

Frustrated by a lack of real success, Scheringa threw caution to the wind and suddenly invested €20 million in the playing staff during the summer of 2007. The available money went into a couple of unsuccesful strikers and caused unrest in the dressing room. The 2007-08 campaign was a disaster, almost ending in the departure of Van Gaal. Some key players convinced him to stay, the bad apples were done away with and suddenly the team found the right gear to take the title last season.

Scheringa was the focal point of the celebrations as it was his money that had bought the success. And he was on a high already, being one of the only bankers without problems during the credit crunch. He even offered his advice to the government to help out in those days of crisis.

Yet, the financial world started asking questions about the wheelings and dealings of his bank, as their substantial gains where accompanied by complaints from the financial watchdog and consumer programmes on television. When a class action by thousands of victims of over-paid mortgages was successful and Scheringa had to cave in, the confidence in his bank drained away rapidly.

At the start of this week the Dutch National Bank stepped in to help avoid bankruptcy. In Alkmaar, the football fans think they know for sure who is behind the downfall of Scheringa. It is a conspiracy of Ajax supporters in high places, who could not stand the success of their small neighbour.

It looks like the future of AZ is not at stake, but it is unlikely they will repeat their championship victory any time soon. They now have to wait for their third knight in shining armour.

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