Contending with problems
It is shaping up to be an interesting season in the Eredivisie, but all the title contenders have problems to contend with off the field. A lively contest in the Johan Cruyff Schaal - the annual season opener between the Eredivisie champions and the KNVB Beker winners - saw FC Twente beat Ajax 2-1 on Saturday, and it also provided a reminder of some of the other problems affecting the country's most successful club.
Although the competition bears his name, Cruyff was not at the Amsterdam Arena to present the trophy. This has become the norm, but he had been rather more conspicuous by his absence the previous Monday - the election night of the new board of commissioners. Cruyff was voted in, but not unanimously, with some members disappointed by his no-show, concerned that the very person who called for a revolution was not inclined to come over to accept his crown.
Without a proper director in charge at the moment, Ajax did manage to make some interesting signings like Theo Janssen from FC Twente and young Icelandic striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson from AZ. There have been exits too. Injury-prone Demy de Zeeuw left for Spartak Moscow, while Mounir El Hamdaoui might join PSV soon - his days at Ajax are numbered anyway as he was sent into the reserve squad after the holidays. Most significant is the departure of Maarten Stekelenburg to AS Roma, but that creates another chance for Kenneth Vermeer, who won the No. 1 spot on merit during the final days of Marco van Basten in 2009. Martin Jol then opted for Stekelenburg again, after which Vermeer spent a year at Willem II. At the end of last season, Vermeer helped Ajax to the title, when Stekelenburg had broken a toe.
For cup-winning FC Twente, all seemed to be going well this summer until the stadium roof collapsed, leaving two construction workers dead and an inaccessible ground for the foreseeable future.
The side have to move to other grounds to play their upcoming fixtures and so, instead of cashing in on a 33,000 capacity ground from the start of this season and a considerable rise in match-day income, the treasurer is suddenly faced with a probable loss on their home games. Chairman Joop Munsterman has already voiced his concern over the financial consequences of the disaster, which could lead to bankruptcy if the club cannot return to the Grolsch Veste soon, but the necessary inquiries by the police and other authorities do take time.
At least FC Twente have found an apt replacement for coach Michel Preud'homme, who suddenly left for Saudi Arabia this summer. Co Adriaanse may give the club a much needed boost after the rather disappointing end of last season, when the title eluded them in dramatic fashion. He has to do without captain Theo Janssen after his move to Ajax but might benefit from the incisive forward runs of Willem Janssen, a priceless free transfer from Roda JC.
The third challenger for the Dutch title will still be PSV, despite their recent financial issues. The deal with the city council has settled that rather urgent problem, while the transfer of Balazs Dzsudzsak to Russia saw them add €14 million to the transfer kitty. That money - and more - went into bolstering the attack, with Kevin Strootman and Dries Mertens joining from FC Utrecht and Georginio Wijnaldum arriving from Feyenoord. At the back not much has changed, except for the departure of Maza Rodriguez to VfB Stuttgart. And remember: PSV still have to qualify for the Europa League in August.
AZ have lost Sigthorsson to Ajax and Stijn Schaars to Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon, and are hoping to sell Argentina international keeper Sergio Romero soon, so are unlikely to show improvement from last season. The fourth position could therefore be up to grabs, while ADO Den Haag may find it difficult to finish fifth again on their shoestring budget. FC Groningen, FC Utrecht and maybe SC Heerenveen will join the fight for Europa League qualification again. The Eredivisie last year regained the fourth ticket, which it lost in 2010, so even ninth place wins a spot in the play-offs next May.
Feyenoord are the most unpredictable side for the coming season. New coach Ronald Koeman is confident for the future - maybe he knows more than we do. Feyenoord's demise has been well documented in my columns over the years. A lack of matchday income and the high salaries paid out for older players who failed to deliver have sent the club into a financial and sporting crisis.
As a result, they have to reinvent themselves as a middling club with the capability of springing the occasional surprise. Because of their debts, they are not allowed to pay transfer fees, which presents an easy excuse to the fans after bad results.
However, of the Eredivisie clubs outside the top four, few have the financial clout to buy players. ADO Den Haag won the play-offs last season with shrewd loan signings and local talents, while FC Groningen and Heerenveen have made millions from a healthy scouting network in Scandinavia. Feyenoord's academy players have featured heavily in the Dutch national youth teams for some time now, but the club cannot find a formula to bring them successfully into their first team.
In 2007, Royston Drenthe was sold to Real Madrid for €15 million as a result of his performances at the European Under-21 championship rather than his showings in his first season as a regular left back at Feyenoord.
This season Georginio Wijnaldum was heralded as a player of huge talent, but he couldn't show it at De Kuip. Internazionale paid good money for Luc Castaignos, probably also on the back of his performances at international level and scouts suspecting there is more to come from him. The two of them might have propelled any other small club in the Eredivisie handsomely into the top five this year; instead, they chose to move on after being part of the side that lost 10-0 to PSV and struggled to stay outside the relegation play-offs for too long.
These bright young talents are now gone, with Leroy Fer soon to follow, while the remaining members of the squad decided they wanted coach Mario Been to leave. On hearing this message, Been quit to be replaced by Koeman. Whether the players' revolt sparks a revival remains to be seen, but even challenging in the top half of the table after last season's 10th placed finish would represent a success.