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Nov 2, 2011

Dutch Euro outlook driven by coefficient

The fourth-round draw of the KNVB Cup in the business lounge of Go Ahead Eagles left many Dutch football supporters quivering with excitement. With Ajax v AZ and FC Twente v PSV set to take place sometime between December 20 and 22, it will be like Christmas has come early in the Netherlands.

However, Heinrich Welling - the Dutch FA official controlling the draw in Deventer - pulled a long face. The efforts to keep the top clubs in the cup for as long as possible had been in vain. In recent seasons, the European contenders from the Eredivisie had been seeded in the first three rounds so they could concentrate on their continental games, with relatively easy cup ties ensuring they were not distracted.

The Dutch FA has also always been keen that the winners of the cup be competitive in Europe, with the organisation's former chairman Henk Kesler once saying: "We need our best clubs in Europe. A small team winning the final sounds very romantic, but their likely early exit weakens the Dutch UEFA coefficient. Is that what you want?"

No, that is not what I want; myself and many fellow Dutch football aficionados are obsessed by the UEFA rankings. Johan Cruyff was an early follower of the European competition qualifying system during his coaching days at Ajax and when the Eredivisie had slumped from four (1980) to only two tickets for the UEFA Cup (1986), he emphasised the importance of having a handful of strong teams in the league rather than the two-horse race that characterised countries like Scotland.

He urged clubs to always go out to win in Europe, even if a draw was good enough to take them through to the next round. With the UEFA coefficient based on handing out two points for every win and one for a draw no matter the opponent - with bonus points coming if the latter stages are reached - that extra win instead of a draw could make all the difference. Not only would a club move up the rankings themselves, their domestic league would also step up to a higher level.

Cruyff's opinion has become a mantra in Dutch football and instigated a change in supporters. During the 1970s, it was commonplace for Dutch fans to cheer on the European opponents of Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV, just out of spite. Similarly to other European leagues - roundly disliked clubs like Bayern Munich and Manchester United spring to mind - many supporters were against Ajax. Even now, you can hear roars of laughter and joy in other stadiums when an Ajax defeat is announced over the tannoy. However, this schadenfreude is now generally only reserved for the league.

When Ajax play in Europe, the nation rallies together as every fan of a smaller club knows a win and the subsequent coefficient points for the otherwise despised club from Amsterdam might help the Eredivisie to more European tickets in the future. As a consequence, a Dutch club will never start with a weakened team in Europe as it would provoke an outcry from coaches, fans and FA officials. The Netherlands desperately needs all the points it can get.

This season, the Eredivisie only started with three teams in the Europa League because the successful 2004-05 season - when PSV and AZ reached European semi-finals - was no longer relevant in the five-year coefficient calculations. In the summer of 2010 the Netherlands had slumped to tenth position in the rankings of European leagues - the worst in recent Dutch history - and the halcyon days of Luis van Gaal's Ajax elevating the Eredivisie into fifth in 1996 appeared a distant memory. Until 2002-03 there were two direct Dutch places and one qualifying ticket for the Champions League, leading to the unlikely appearances of Willem II and Heerenveen, but since 2003 the maximum number of Eredivisie representatives has been two, while one Europa League spot was lost ahead of this season.

The introduction of the Europa League has, however, shaken the equation of European football, especially concerning the coefficient. In 2009-10, clubs from the Eredivisie and the Portuguese Liga, earned many more points than their closest rivals Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. Last season they almost equalled Italy in fact, where interest in continental football outside the Champions League is negligible. Juventus, Sampdoria and Palermo all failed to progress past the group stage, while Napoli crashed out at the first knockout stage. And with Italian football's successful 2005-06 season now absent from coefficient calculations, the country is behind Germany in the rankings and will have only three Champions League tickets in 2012.

In the past decade, the top five was almost a given with England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, usually in that order. In this year's rankings, though, Portugal has surpassed France already and is closing in on the underperforming Italians, who have only one club left in the Europa League.

Looking forward to 2015 the situation for Europe's traditional powers is potentially even more troubling. When taking the points since 2010 into consideration, Portugal are in second position and the Netherlands in fifth, while Italy and France drop to 6th and 7th respectively. England and Spain earn enough points from the Champions League, but Germany and Portugal might battle it out for third place in the future.

However, the coefficient is a quirky number. All the nations' points-per-season are divided by its number of participants. In 2005-06 Romania enjoyed a stellar European season with Steaua and Rapid Bucharest advancing into the Europa League quarter finals. With only three competing clubs, Romania picked up a huge 16.833 points - the best of all nations - and jumped from 25th to 10th. Still on three teams the next season, Romania (thanks to Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest) continued their rise to 7th and won two Champions League places. Steaua, CFR Cluj, Unirea Urziceni and Otelul Galati have all enjoyed a place in the Champions League spotlight, all be it with limited success and only a couple of points to show. Subsequently, the country's coefficient dropped considerable and in 2012 Romania are back where they were in 2005.

Due to the mathematical connotations of the coefficient, the nations ranked between five and eleven may rollercoaster through the years - as winning more places in the Champions League will result in less points. The Eredivisie now has three clubs riding high in the Europa League, but as soon as an extra Champions League place is won, the coefficient will likely drop. However, Dutch coaches will no doubt continue to work towards a better coefficient and refuse to field weakened teams in continental competition.

We only have to hope now that the two amateur clubs currently in the fourth round of the Dutch Cup won't make it to the final, otherwise a fifth place ranking beckons in 2015!

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