David got smart again: An insight into Dutch football

Those who lack strength must compensate with inventiveness. So did David in one of the most famous biblical stories, defeating Goliath with a slingshot, rather than actual fight the big fellow in close combat. This compares well with the Dutch. Seen in historical terms, they have always performed way beyond their means.

With a population of sixteen million , it’s one of the smaller countries in Europe, yet they have left a great legacy in football. For instance, they brought the world ‘Total Football’ (Totaalvoetbal) in 1974, when the world marvelled at the Dutch.  In ’88 a side including mouthwatering talents like Gullit, van Basten, Rijkaard and Koeman won the only international trophy the Dutch have assembled, despite reaching, and losing, a record three WC-finals. The Ajax-side of ’71-’73 wasn’t too shabby either nor was their Champions League-winning side in ‘ 95. The club success wasn’t solely Amsterdam based though. With Feyenoord and PSV able to count themselves as European Champions Cup winners, only England have delivered more different winners of Europe’s leading club competition. There were thirteen Dutchmen on Pelé’s list of 125 greatest living footballers, a worthy testament to their accomplishments.

Over the last 20 years, the major club teams have hit a bit of rough patch. The first major blow was the landmark Bosman ruling, with several top players (Bogarde, Kluivert, Davids) leaving a star-studded Ajax-side on free transfers. This was mainly down to the big money offered by other clubs, since while Ajax was a top European side at that moment, they could not compete with the biggest clubs in England, Italy or Spain. In order to boost the financial power of the club, a new stadium was built and the club was floated on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange ; the latter freeing up no less than €60m to be invested in the club. The late ‘90s were a true financial disaster. Instead of continuing what the Amsterdam club did best –  nurturing young talent – they blew crazy money on mediocre players in an ultimately futile effort to keep up with Europe’s major clubs. The most telling example was perhaps Froylan Ledezma, a Costa Rican player acquired for €4.5 million. While it was a big money transfer at the time, he never appeared in a competitive match for the Amsterdam club. Other legendary failures include Mariano Juan, Ivan Gabrich and former Manchester City ace Giorgi Kinkladze.

Not that the other big clubs could cover themselves in glory either though. Feyenoord bought a contignent of South-American players of which only a few came good. Mauricio Aros, Tati Montoya, Patricio Graff, Somalia were not exactly world beaters. The few decent buys from that time ironically never blossomed in the red and white shirt, Julio Cruz a notable exception. Gerson Magrao, Michel Bastos and Fred were all (partly) owned by Feyenoord at one point and went on to play Champions League football at other clubs. Perhaps the biggest financial disaster in the Netherlands followed a few years later. In 2007, Feyenoord hadn’t been in the Champions League for years, which left Feyenoord struggling to compete financially. In a desperate attempt to qualify, silly money was thrown on aging players such as Roy Makaay and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Bert van Marwijk, who as coach led De Club van het Zuid to the 2002 UEFA Cup, returned for a second spell at the helm. The project failed miserably and left the club in dire financial straits.

PSV initially coped quite well and racked up title after title in the ‘00s. However, their focus has always been on hoovering up foreign talent, with Ronaldo and Romario the most eyecatching players of all. Mind you, they also bought one Abel Xavier once, who is better known for his crazy hair and beard, so it’s not all success for the Eindhoven-based club. After a couple of seasons with more misses than hits on the transfer market, their dominance began to wane.

The failings of these clubs led to a shift of power within the Eredivisie. The first team to strike was AZ. Under the guidance of Co Adriaanse and successor Louis van Gaal and with the financial backing of banker Dirk Scheringa, the club managed to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2005. When they lifted the Eredivisie title in 2009, it was the first time since 1981 that a side from outside the top three had been crowned champions. Incidentally, AZ were also title winners on that occasion. The side contained several Feyenoord and Ajax youth products, who never had a chance to breakthrough at their original clubs, mainly due to expensive, mediocre buys. Next up was FC Twente, who themselves had nearly gone out of existence only a few years previously. With a side partly built with money earned from the sales of former Ajax youth players Elia and Braafheid, they picked up the 2010 Eredivisie title.

With Feyenoord perilously close to bankruptcy in this period, a new era started for the Rotterdam side. The focus was once again on youth players and with the sales of Fer (FC Twente), Wijnaldum and Castaignos (Internazionale), the club started a process of recovering their financial situation. And with a starting eleven only containing two bought players and two loanees, the club returned to its roots. The same goes for Ajax. After the departure of Martin Jol, Frank de Boer has collected up two titles in as many seasons, with only three players who did not come through De Toekomst, the famous youth academy of the club. It is a visible trend throughout the Eredivisie: the game between FC Groningen and Feyenoord on 30th October 2011 had a stunning nine Dutch youth internationals between them. Five years ago, this game only featured one. The European performance of the Dutch clubs has been of increasing quality as well: In the last five years, the last year has consequently earned more points on the UEFA-coefficient ranking than the former.

It seems the small nation has once again re-invented itself and Dutch clubs are eager to show Europe their new found potential. Frank de Boer already claimed that his Ajax-side ‘can beat any team in the world’. A tad optimistic, but it’s an example of the belief the Dutch club sides have at the moment. A resemblance to the aforementioned David, who in the end outwitted his much more powerful opponent. And who knows, maybe a Dutch side can stun the footballing world once again in the near future.

With thanks to Gary Niblock, who edited the whole story (twitter.com/goalgary)

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