Dutch football is on a downward spiral. There is still time to save it but will the 'cure' be palatable to a country with proud football traditions?
As the world of football continues to evolve rapidly, one of its traditional superpowers might be left behind. The Dutch national team doesn’t play as attractive as the famous teams of the past, while the Eredivisie is losing ground to the Portuguese, Turkish, Ukrainian and Russian leagues. Dutch clubs can’t compete financially and now face a difficult decision: keep on sliding down the European club’s ladder, or join forces with the money people and strike back.
In Holland, we have only won one big prize with our national team, the European Cup of 1988, and lost three finals: in 1974, 1978 and 2010. But we always pride ourselves in being the most memorable team, not winning a place in the history books, but winning a place in the hearts of football fans worldwide. Our Dutch style of football gained tremendous following and has influenced the game far beyond the borders of our small nation, with Barcelona as the most shining example.
But in 2010, things were different. While we went down with great style and our heads held high in 1974 and 1978, we were now playing more pragmatic than ever. Bert van Marwijks side’s success was based on discipline and a fighting spirit, most notoriously culminating into Nigel de Jong’s kung fu kick in the chest of Spain’s Xabi Alonso. The result of second place behind an unbeatable Spanish team was celebrated greatly in our country, but nobody across the globe was celebrating our style of play anymore. Our national team had thrown its identity out of the window.
Louis van Gaal is trying to rejuvenate the Dutch way of playing football at the moment, but with Guus Hiddink as the man to take over the helm after Brazil, a long term philosophy seems to have left the building at the KNVB’s headquarters. But the difficulty in finding a decent replacement for Van Gaal made another ‘end of an era’ very visible: the nation’s golden generation of coaches is aging. Leo Beenhakker has already said goodbye, while Hiddink is 67, Dick Advocaat is 66 and Van Gaal himself is 62. The coaching talent seems to have skipped a generation (except for maybe Ronald Koeman), as the Dutch are looking at the likes of Frank de Boer, Philip Cocu and Clarence Seedorf to find their next great coach.
But there is a far bigger problem in Dutch football, and it is the state of the Dutch league. The days when Feyenoord (1970) and Ajax (1971, 1972, 1973) crowned themselves European kings are just a vague memory and the chance of a Dutch team winning the Champions League in the coming years is virtually zero. Even a repeat of Feyenoord’s UEFA Cup win of 2002 would be extremely hard to accomplish for Holland’s current top teams.
As I was a kid, I always heard the Dutch TV pundits talk about the ‘Mickey Mouse league’. I never understood what they meant, so I asked my father. He explained that it meant that the Eredivisie was as small as a mouse compared to the English, German, Spanish, Italian and French leagues. But this year FC Utrecht was defeated by FC Dudelange from Luxembourg in the Europa League, while PSV were beaten by Bulgarian Ludogorets Razgrad and didn’t stand a chance. Romanian Petrolul Ploiesti tore Vitesse to shreds and meanwhile in the Champions League, Frank de Boer was “not unsatisfied” after losing 4-0 against FC Barcelona. Ajax was later destroyed by Red Bull Salzburg in the knock out phase of the Europa League.
Our Dutch clubs are now inferior to not only the English, Germans, Italians, Spanish and French, but also to the big teams from Russia, Ukraine, Portugal and Turkey, while they struggle against Bulgarians, Austrians, Romanians and even the champion from Luxembourg. Maybe the Eredivisie’s nickname should be changed to ‘Jiminy Cricket league’.
How did this happen? In part because there is no money left. As the proud Dutch clubs resisted the lure of rich people from deserts or Malaysian nuthouses, they also lost the financial war which is present day European football. But this was long hailed as a good thing, as it made Dutch clubs more creative in finding good quality for cheap prices. The Eredivisie prided itself as the ideal stepping stone from a small league to the biggest European clubs. In the Eredivisie, players like Luis Suárez, Salomon Kalou, Thomas Vermaelen, Keisuke Honda and Zlatan Ibrahimovic grew and learned a lot, before taking Europe by storm.
And of course there were our own talents who conquered Europe. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, the list goes on and on. The Eredivisie was the ideal stepping stone for talented players to reach the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues. We prided ourselves with that, as we prided ourselves with the way we played football. We didn’t win prizes, but we won the sympathy of many a football fan. Being a star in the Eredivisie was a stamp of approval, which meant you could also make it at the biggest teams of Europe.
But this stamp has lost a lot of its value in recent years. Bas Dost, Urby Emanuelson, Oussama Assaidi, Ibrahim Afellay, Luuk de Jong, Marko Arnautovic, Afonso Alves, Maarten Stekelenburg, Demy de Zeeuw, Georgios Samaras, Bryan Ruiz, Luc Castaignos and Eljero Elia all failed to make an impact at bigger leagues. Europe’s biggest clubs are now only rarely watching Holland’s best players. Wilfried Bony’s transfer to Swansea City was symbolic. Ten years ago, a player who scored 31 goals in 30 Eredivisie matches would’ve more likely have gone to an English championship contender instead of a team fighting relegation.
Backed by almost unlimited finances, the biggest clubs of our continent have changed the way they find talented players drastically over the last ten years. Instead of cherry picking the best from smaller leagues they ship in almost entire teams from all over the world to go play in their youth academies, hoping one of them is the next Lionel Messi. This has affected the Eredivisie in two ways. Dutch players are taken away from our youth ranks, and talented players from abroad don’t need a stepping stone anymore.
In recent years, dozens of talents left their clubs before even making their debut in the senior team, chasing the dream of thousands of young Dutch boys. None of them has succeeded yet. Kyle Ebecilio returned ‘home’ from Arsenal to play for FC Twente, Jeffrey Bruma landed at PSV Eindhoven after two years of HSV on loan from Chelsea, his buddy Patrick van Aanholt is now at Vitesse and Karim Rekik is also trying to make an impression at PSV while on loan from Manchester City. Players like Danny Hoesen (former Fulham, now at PAOK Saloniki), Nacer Barazite (former Arsenal, now at (the reserves of) AS Monaco) and Nadir Çiftçi (former Portsmouth, now at Dundee United) have seen their career collapse after a failed adventure in the Premier League. Ouasim Bouy (Juventus) and Nathan Aké (Chelsea) are rare examples of Dutch youngsters at top teams at the moment.
Dutch teams who are trying to lure big talents from smaller European leagues or South America, Asia and Africa are finding it more and more difficult to compete against the same big clubs which are snapping up their homegrown talents. Ajax is still successfully finding talent in Denmark and Serbia, but most extremely talented youngsters are immediately jumping to the bigger leagues. They don’t need the stepping stone any more, or at least they think they don’t.
These developments mean that a lot of the biggest Dutch talents are drained before they can even play in the Eredivisie and the prospects from abroad don’t come to Holland anymore. We have to make do with the best talents left and some foreigners who never made it to the Champions League contenders’ shortlists. As our talents are bought at a younger and younger age, their successors have to make their debut even younger. At Eredivisie level they’re fine, but in Europe they struggle with more experienced opposition.
In Holland, we always look at our Belgian neighbors with a bit of disdain. A lot of Belgian clubs are very poor compared to ours, playing in old ruins they call stadiums and with a million sponsors stamped at every empty spot on their kit. Only some second hand Africans and Eastern Europeans try to make it big via the Jupiler Pro League. The top teams don’t stand any chance in Europe and the last prize a Belgian team won was the Europa League II of FC Antwerp in 1993.
But us Dutch now have to draw a harsh conclusion: we have almost sunk to the same level as our neighbors. We get annihilated in Europe every season and we are no longer the talent factory we used to be. That title is now claimed by the likes of FC Porto, SL Benfica, Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Basel and Dinamo Zagreb. We have lost our identity to these teams and now there is no identity left. If nothing changes, the Eredivisie will become comparable to the Jupiler Pro League, the Scottish Premier League, the Swiss Super League, the Austrian Bundesliga and the Scandinavian and Eastern European leagues.
Judging by the combined market values of the European Leagues as found on Transfermarkt.de, the Eredivisie now comes in as number ten, not far above the Jupiler Pro League. Even the English Championship has surpassed us, although that league consists of more teams. If nothing changes, the gap with number nine Ukraine will grow wider and wider with each passing season. And ironically, Belgium teams are growing more and more players succeeding in big leagues and drawing top talent like RSC Anderlecht’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Standard Liège’s Imoh Ezekiel.
But inventive and entrepreneurial as ever, the Dutch are looking for ways to turn the tide. In 2010 Vitesse Arnhem became the first club to ‘fall into the hands’ of a foreign millionaire. Georgian Merab Jordania, a good friend of Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, turned Vitesse into one of the Eredivisie’s best sides, strongly relying on Chelsea loanees. The traditional top teams Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV are unlikely to follow, but as Feyenoord is backed by some rich fans, PSV – and also FC Twente – are looking to copy the success of SL Benfica and FC Porto. How? By letting Doyen Sports enter their club.
Doyen, Jorge Mendes’ company which co-owns many players at Benfica, Porto, and also Sporting, has brought Portuguese teams great success. Doyen, to give two examples, helped Porto buy Radamel Falcao and played a big part in Benfica’s landing of Lazar Markovic last summer. The company co-owns many a player in Portugal, especially at Porto, and moves them around to clubs like Atlético Madrid, AS Monaco and Chelsea. Vitesse has already welcomed Doyen-player Zakaria Labyad on loan from Sporting this winter, PSV gave Doyen half of the transfer rights of Adam Maher in exchange for some financial backing for bringing him in from AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente has given Doyen 25 to 30 per cent ownership of five players, including star men Dusan Tadic, Quincy Promes and Kyle Ebecilio, for just five million euros.
Dutch media are skeptical. If Maher is sold to a big club, half of his transfer fee will flow into Mendes’ large pockets. And the five million that Twente got for their players will most likely turn out to be a bargain for Doyen on the long run. Dutch teams welcome the financial backing of Doyen, but don’t want to lose too much autonomy to a company whose sole goal is earning as much money as possible. Losing big talents to bigger clubs like Chelsea, Monaco or even Benfica will become much easier and landing a big transfer fee will become harder. But at the same time they want to be able to compete in European football’s money war.
Dutch football at club level basically has two options: becoming Belgium, or becoming Portugal. If Dutch clubs don’t join forces with the mighty Doyen (or the more unlikely millionaires) to gain funds and attract better talent, they will keep losing quality and keep losing ground to the rivalling leagues. But if they do let Doyen help them out, Jorge Mendes, the great Portuguese puppet master, will have acquired a new puppet to dance to his strings. Either way, Dutch football’s identity will be flushed down the toilet. Modern football doesn’t have a place for a low budget stepping stone anymore. There are only little stones and big rocks.
As a proud footballing nation, the Dutch will not accept mediocrity. Something has to change, and more and more leading figures in Dutch football are calling for this change. With Maher, Labyad and Tadic, the new breeze has already entered our front yard. If these deals turn out to be a success, Dutch clubs are likely to open the door and let the storm in. If you have to choose between becoming tiny on your own or big as a puppet of others, many will choose the latter. And thus Dutch club football will most likely make the same change as Bert van Marwijk made four years ago: trading romanticism for pragmatism. Changing sympathy for success.
By Enzio Bakker
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona