How Frank De Boer turned his frown upside down

And there he stands. Looking happy. He’s won a third title in a row. Frank de Boer. A winner. One who comes across relaxed. He has turned into a man with different emotions. These days, he is a man who can cry. Over little things. He admitted recently in Voetbal International: ‘I can spontaneously burst into tears when I am watching a talent show on TV and a young girl is singing beautifully’. A man who can cheer. A man who can chill.

Most people forgot he was never like that. But people tend to forget a lot of things. For instance: what was the name of the first dog in space? (Laika). Who won the gold medal at the ’88 Olympics after Ben Johnson was disqualified? (Carl Lewis). Or what is the answer to the easiest of all questions? (Boy Waterman).

Another thing people forget is that Frank de Boer lost ‘The Big Womb-Race’ to his brother Ronald. Frank’s lack of pace was apparent at young age. You could say it has haunted him throughout his career. On the field, he was one of the slow ones. To summarise: Frank de Boer was born a slow loser. Hence the frown. Frank wasn’t happy with himself.

Things didn’t get better when he took up professional football. He graduated in 88/89, a season later than twin brother Ronald. He earned a lower grade than his sibling (Frank got a 4 out of 11 on his shirt, Ronald always got a 7 or higher). Ronald was granted a spring break-esque adventure in the East with FC Twente. He enjoyed the change of pace from Amsterdam. Frank had to stay. While Ronald de Boer was celebrating freedom on his vacation, grumpy Frank had to play a UEFA Cup final (the lowest of all European prizes). Not one, but two matches against Torino. Perhaps a slight consolation for Frank was winning the finals. Ronald returned when things got interesting in 1993.

Together with Ronald, Frank won three championships in a row. Although he had to work harder for it. Ronald got spared the odd game, Frank worked for his money. They won the Champions League and Club World Cup. Frank wasn’t a major part of the success in either. Patrick Kluivert scored the decider against AC Milan in the former, Danny Blind netted the winning penalty in the latter.

Overall though, these were pretty good times for Frank. He had a decent job, a decent income and was rather well-respected. But the frown remained.  As if he had envisaged things to come.

Because this winning streak wouldn’t last any longer. First, Ajax only won a single title in three years. Secondly, radio DJ Edwin Evers was better at imitating the brothers De Boer than they were. And to round it all off, they sued their club in order to join Barcelona. You can guess what happened: they lost the lawsuit. In the end though, Ajax buckled under the pressure and sold the twins to Barcelona. But it didn’t make Frank any happier.

Used to the weather in the Netherlands, he never really felt comfortable playing football in the Spanish heat. After four-and-a-half years, his frown had turned brown and he’d had enough. In the same period, his national team activity wasn’t up to scratch either. An assist for Dennis Bergkamp during World Cup ’98 begged the question: does Frank De Boer need others to do the work for him? The pass was class, but in the end, it was Dennis Bergkamp who did all the work.

Frank De BoerThe answer came against Italy in the semi-final of Euro 2000. Frank de Boer took responsibility for once. He volunteered to take a penalty after 37 minutes. He failed. Then, he tried again in the penalty shoot-out. He failed again. Frank de Boer added a unique new loser-ish record to his collection, becoming the first player to miss a spot-kick in normal time and a shoot-out in a major international tournament*. It left the nation in such confusion that they forgot to beat Ireland and Portugal in 2002 World Cup qualifying. As a result Holland didn’t participate in the first Asian World Cup, missing a major tournament for the first time in 14 years.

He was part of the squad that went on to reach the semi final of the 2004 European Championships, but was only a substitue. Frank de Boer finished his international career with a national record 112 caps to his name, scoring 13 goals in the process. The same amount of goals as his brother Ronald, who needless to say needed far fewer games to reach that tally (56). It also goes without saying his national record was broken soon enough, when goalkeeper and ‘friend’ Edwin Van der Sar eclipsed him. Frank was not a man to hold positive, enviable records.

Back to his club career. After Barcelona, he decided he wanted to move somewhere less hot. He failed, ending up in Turkey, at Galatasaray. He only lasted half a year, melting away like an ice cream on a hot summer day. His older brother came in with some advice. Ronald had moved to Glasgow, a more convenient choice for people who are used to the Dutch weather. What Frank didn’t realize was that Scottish weather is to Dutch weather what Turkish is to Dutch. All this rain and all this wind! It’s nothing like the Netherlands! In a last attempt to settle outside the Dutch borders, he and Ronald moved to Qatar. The air conditioning made up for the heat over there and Frank actually enjoyed himself for a while. But, not being as flexible as Ronald, he decided to move back to the Netherlands. Back to the province of Noord Holland, close to where his career started.

And returning to the Netherlands gave him a new appreciation of himself and his country. ‘It’s not so bad over here’, he thought, ‘and the people are a bit more appreciative’. He started to work as a youth coach at Ajax. Once a place he was dying to get away from, now a place for which he found a new kind of fondness. In the meantime, he became assistant to Dutch national manager Bert Van Marwijk. Only the odd trip to foreign lands, living close to Gaarderen, where he has a holiday home.

Things started to look good for Frank. The frown started to wear off. Not too many visits to hot countries, no need to run anymore in order to make money, just standing still and enjoy seeing others doing the work, coming home to his wife and three kids, eating typical Dutch food. All of a sudden, Frank even started to smile every now and then.

So when Eredivisie-club FC Groningen came a-knockin’ to appoint him as their new head coach, Frank de Boer gently but confidently turned down the offer. Groningen is 200 kilometres from his home region. It’s almost a foreign country!

When six months later, Ajax became manager-less after sacking of Martin Jol, he took his chance. Ajax made Frank their head coach. And Frank knew he was now finally ‘a boss’. A boss with emotions he had never felt before. He dumped the grumpiness and embraced humour, sensitivity and, as mentioned  earlier, he even shed the odd tear. Now, two-and-a-half years into his reign, he has racked up three consecutive titles,  a feat only achieved by Michels and Van Gaal.

Michels and Van Gaal. Two managers who are winners. After making a career out of being a loser, Frank was finally a winner. He turned his career upside down. And in the process, his frown too.

*This is a record that has been confirmed with a ‘guess so’ from Opta-man Duncan Alexander, which is good enough for me to consider it gospel.

Thanks to Rob Brown for feedback and especially to Sheridan Bird for his feedback and editing. You both were of great help.

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  1. Matthew Stanger

    Enjoyed that Michiel. Especially the bit about Frank crying over a young girl singing on TV. The new site is great!

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