Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Ajax: the Cruijff and Van Gaal years

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

An extraordinary rivalry

Back in November an enthusiastic Gerard Piqué described Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi as an "extraterrestrial" when comparing the Argentine to Cristiano Ronaldo. As compliments go that's right up there, but it's worth noting – even though figures aren't as astronomic – Ronaldo is the only active footballer that comes close to Messi, even if it seems they're a million miles apart. That said, the 'alien' term, actually leads to the best analogy of their rivalry. 

Ronaldo in his own right often gives the impression he too is not of this world. One of the more famous and intense feuds in popular culture between aliens, when you think about bares similarities, is the one between Goku and Vegeta in the Dragonball series.

If we follow the perceived narrative: Ronaldo is a product of meticulous training; worked inconceivably hard to get where he is, to gain the strength and ability, as well as the drive to surpass all others past or present, despite all that inevitably falls short against someone who is supernaturally gifted (albeit from the same planet). A succinct description of Vegeta.  Although shorter in stature, same with Goku and Messi, both it seems only need to work minimally to increase or maintain their overall power-level.  Then the characteristics; Vegeta: comes across as arrogant and nonchalant, Goku: angelic and humble. That's not to paint the former as the bad guy. Ronaldo himself commented his will to win (in the case of Vegeta 'will to be superior'), fear of losing and burning desire to be the best has lead to "a bad image on the pitch". 

Neither would consider the other as a friend but can coexist, like Goku and Vegeta who have often fought side by side, there was even a report Ronaldo and Messi were keen on the idea of playing alongside each other in a charity match Brazilian footballing great Rivaldo is hoping to organise. Messi continues to defy, breaking old and setting new records, Wayne Gretzky-esque. Piqué might have been joking, still you wouldn't put it past Messi one day pushing his speed, strength and endurance far beyond the normal limits.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The story of the Intercontinental Cup

To many it was a trophy of importance, to some it was an inconvenience (that at times wasn't even worth dealing with) but one thing is for sure the Intercontinental Cup, Toyota Cup, European/South American Cup call it what you like, produced plenty of great moments and games.

The brainchild of Henri Delauney, first general secretary of UEFA, who also proposed the European Championship (trophy named after him). His suggestion, that the champions of two continents should compete for one global trophy, also inspired the creation of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s answer to the European Cup.

Between 1960 and 1980 all finals were played over two legs. Strangely up until 1968 points, not aggregate score, was the decisive factor and if the points were level, a third match was required. The first winners of the competition were Real Madrid; AC Milan, Penarol and Nacional since won the competition a record three times each.

The competition came close to being disbanded in the 1970's when a number of European clubs, such as Ajax, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, complained at the over aggressive play of the South Americans. The competition has also survived such things as pitched battles, corruption claims and rule bending.

In 1980 Japanese sponsors Toyota came to the rescue with its proposal of a one-off match to be played annually in Tokyo, in the hope of generating interest for football in Japan. Since then the competition grew in popularity until FIFA decided to form their Club World Cup in 2000, subsequently becoming an annual event in 2005.

Memorable games: 1962: Benfica 2-5 Santos (2nd leg); 1972: Ajax 3-0 Independiente (2nd leg); 1981: Flamengo 3-0 Liverpool; 1990: Milan 3-0 Olimpia; 1992: São Paulo 2-1 Barcelona

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The End of History and the last Dutch side left in Europe

Bert van Marwijk and members of Feyenoord's victorious 2002 UEFA Cup winning side (May 2012). Photograph: VI Images

In some ways it was fitting forty-eight hours before Frank de Boer's second anniversary as manager Ajax played at the Santiago Bernabéu, their defeat there in November 2010 lead to a disgruntled Johan Cruyff penning [in his De Telegraaf column] what now many consider the starting point of his 'fluwelen revolutie' (velvet revolution) setting in motion for De Boer's appointment. A revolution that's taken casualties but importantly restored the clubs renowned identity, resulting in a new club policy with long-term plan to return to Europe's summit; needless to say an improbable task.

A challenge De Boer nonetheless has accepted, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step, if they're ever going to come close to fulfilment imperative baby steps are made in Europe (which hasn't been easy). If that wasn't pressure enough, continuation of their European campaign wasn't only on the line in Madrid, but an unwanted piece of history. Not since 1998/99 has there been no Dutch representative in Europe after winter. And it will just about remain that way. Ajax finished third in their Champions League group dropping into the Europa League, level on points with Manchester City, ahead courtesy of head-to-head.

The last side from the Netherlands standing in Europe, contrast to last year when four clubs hibernated, the Dutch co-efficient – which seen an upward curve in the last five seasons – ended fourth behind England, Spain and Germany: between five clubs 22 wins from 40 games. It's taken a battering this time around. Feyenoord, Heerenveen, AZ and Vitesse all crashed out in pre-qualification. PSV and Twente eliminated in the group stage of the Europa League. No ounce of positive instead a bleak future where competitiveness is absent and reaching latter stages is no longer possible. 

Sad reality, never been this way, turning point can possibly (and this is clutching straws) be traced back to the 'Bosman ruling' and the subsequent removal of the 'three foreigner rule' – which Dutch clubs greatly benefited from – and globalising of the game. The one anomaly was PSV coming agonisingly close to contesting the 2005 Champions League final an exception in this brave new world, where status of clubs are lowly, effectively become selling ones, nothing new but it's more graphic and spiralling out of control.

Whilst squads in most parts of Europe are rich in experience their counterparts in the Netherlands continue to become younger, inexperienced and bereft of the excellence needed to compete. Possessing talents destined for greatness, is one thing, but soon as they gain invaluable experience and start to live up to their promise, they leave for pastures new resetting the vicious cycle that plagues Dutch football, forever weakening sides keeping them in perpetual motion.

It doesn't help with the Eredivisie being one of the poorest leagues in Western Europe, foreign players at their peak, or near to, are reluctant to move,deeming it as a step down – financially as well as competitively – further strengthening its reputation as a development league. Many ask what can be done the answer unfortunately is nothing. You're only as strong as the league you play in. This is why English, Spanish and German clubs will continue to dominate the European landscape occasionally threatened by sides from Italy,Portugal, Russia, Ukraine and France. 

The assertion this is only a blip becomes increasingly difficult to justify, instead last season can be interpreted as overachievement (going against the grain if you will), and any hope of a shift in fortune has rapidly faded. This season’s abject showing can be attributed to many factors, some of which outlined above; consequently it’s played a pivotal role – when looking at the bigger picture – in enabling the downward spiral of the past decade, accelerating rapidly in the last few months, without an end in sight and close to the nadir. 

Optimists begrudgingly concede any light at the end of the tunnel is close to extinguishing. The greatest trick UEFA ever pulled was convincing European clubs financial fair play will affect the status quo and lead to better days for those economically healthy (like most in the Eredivisie). A bumper new domestic television deal worth €1bn spanning over twelve years starting in 2013 could down the road lead to squads staying intact longer than today's average, better wages tempting players to stay until their ready to depart, lessening the severity of the vicious cycle. Even though the damage is irreversible it hasn't meant clubs have resigned to their fate. The size of the league and country is a millstone around the neck and historical success is a testament to ingenuity of clubs.

This past May marked a decade of dearth. It only seems like yesterday Bert van Marwijk masterminding UEFA Cup success with Feyenoord, what should have been a moment to reflect, didn't feel like one, instead the Rotterdammers feat acts as a sombre timely reminder of how far Dutch club football has fallen in Europe. Historically the longest its gone without a single triumph on the continent from the moment Ernst Happel and Feyenoord won the European Cup in 1970. The previous longest drought was nine years between Kees Rijvers guiding PSV to UEFA Cup glory in 1978 and Ajax under the auspices of Johan Cruyff winning the Cup Winners' Cup in 1987.

Back then success seemed only round the corner, easy to forget what a prosperous nation the Netherlands was, eleven major titles amassed in a 32-year period, consisting of six European Cups, four UEFA Cups and a solitary Cup Winners' Cup. Not forgetting four runners-up: FC Twente and AZ in the UEFA Cup respectively, Ajax in the European Cup (they also reached the final in 1969) and Cup Winners' Cup. The attitude of the past, coupled with working towards a viable solution, was rekindled in the last few years. "Those who are not wealthy must be creative" as Cruyff said. With the right methods of coaching and not forgetting the occasional luck, it's possible as proven last year, a simple case of evolution. Charles Darwin put it best: adapt to survive.

Wim Kieft, European Cup winner with PSV in 1988, after his former side and Twente exited proclaimed "Dutch clubs have no business in Champions League," adding they should rather focus on making inroads in the Europa League. Willem van Hanegem, part of the successful Feyenoord side that won in 1970, wrote in Algemeen Dagblad the need for a revolution. "We should be more critical of our football," he began. "It's time to sound the alarm," arguing being from a small nation with a modest TV revenue stream shouldn't hold them back, easier said than done.

Another coach turned pundit feels their weakness is actually their perceived strength (distinct brand of football). Aad de Mos, who defeated former employees Ajax in the 1988 Cup Winners' Cup final as manager of KV Mechelen, stresses the need to adapt. "Our style of play works when we play against each other," he told NUsport. "It's based on pressure and dominant play, but in Europe you see almost no team plays like that. They look first for a solid defence and play on the counter."

It's a turn of events that has concerned the national football governing body.Bert van Oostveen, KNVB (Dutch FA) director, confirmed this month they'll sit down with clubs, also discussion of Michel Platini's planned modification of UEFA competitions (which includes abolishing Europa League) will be on the agenda.

In the meantime De Boer can look forward to a run in the Europa League. It won't be easy despite his positive intentions, which he won't waver from, the recent defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid highlighted lack of personnel to compete and challenge at the highest level (as a result of the vicious cycle). Nevertheless their only win in Europe this season, at home to Manchester City, showcased everything good about their philosophy. On and off the pitch, free-flowing circulation football and starting the match with seven De Toekomst (their famed academy) graduates. 

To not take anything away from what was a commendable and deserving victory, Ajax, in all tense and purposes remain too volatile to go deep in European competition. They have the youngest squad (average) out of all sides playing in either UEFA tournaments, many of whom shorn of international experience, in the cold light of day they not only lack the depth in quality but wherewithal to consistently perform at this required level. A performance like the one against City comes around once in a blue moon (pun not intended).

Even with that truth staring them in the face De Boer remains optimistic."We will take the tournament seriously," proceeding to outline the positives of the competition. "It's a nice level to show the qualities of Ajax, and crucial for our younger players, being in contact with different playing styles and culture is beneficial to their development."

Being the only Dutch club to survive the winter is a success in its own right, but there's no escaping the fact as each year passes the chasm between the richer nations grows and so does the long and arduous wait for any kind of Dutch success on the continent, one that could last beyond this current generation if it comes at all. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

De Klassieker: 'Ref, golazo, and prodigy'

There's no such thing as a dull Klassieker. In the aftermath of another engrossing affair on a crisp October afternoon, ending in a 2-2 draw, Frank de Boer must have wondered if there's such a thing as a referee curse. For the successive league game involving Ajax the big decision went against him. The performance of the man in the middle subsequently ended up dominating the discourse as much as the game itself. "This is really sour," was De Boer's immediate response. An initial fear of his came to pass. A first win at De Kuip in over two years looked on the cards until everything flipped-turned upside down.

In the 48 hours leading up both managers did their utmost to sell the game, one of the very few Eredivisie games to reach a global audience, it wasn't necessary as the fixture – with a life of its own – history and regional rivalry already has it covered. However that didn't stop De Boer from partaking in the now compulsory psychological warfare. He spoke of the fear of a 'homer'. His opposite number Ronald Koeman brushed it aside pointing to the Amsterdammers own chequered history of receiving favourable decisions at home. And Koeman should know.

Paranoia hasn't exactly infiltrated De Boer but his concerns are understandable given, objectively, what has gone against him this season. A month ago, away to Heerenveen, Pol van Boekel adjudged defender Toby Alderweireld to have handled the ball when in clearly struck him in the face. In the same game Thulani Serero, currently sidelined, was given a harsh straight red.

Only the previous weekend, before Ajax threw away a two-goal lead in the final ten minutes at Heracles, they had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside to make it 2-4. De Boer was left seething. Kevin Blom, in charge that Saturday evening, agreed it was a mistake – empathising with De Boer – but stressed his assistant, with a better view, made the call and he was in no position to overturn without being 100% sure.

His transgression was an honest mistake and forgivable but the inexcusable defending that followed made it feel like part of a double whammy. A school of thought dictates De Boer shouldn't air such grievances in public, but the opposite: if he can sow seeds of doubt now, may turn out to be beneficial down the road. Not the first manager, and won't be the last, to use this ploy. This time around it came back to bite him.

With De Klassieker a 'category A' game it wasn't a surprise to see the KNVB hand Bas Nijhuis, currently ranked as number one in Dutch officialdom, the unenviable task of upholding law and order. This wasn't one of his better performances. His inclusion from the onset only added to the hype which ended up justified. Whoever writes these scripts earned a night's repose: four goals, a 'golazo' in the dying seconds of normal time, a controversial sending off, enough drama and talking points to last until the next meeting.

On the 75 minute mark the game changer. Niklas Moisander, after a meek coming together with Graziano Pellè, was shown a second yellow card. He shouldn't have received his first.  The Finn stood bemused his manager perplexed on the touchline.  De Boer carefully worded his post-match thoughts, short of screaming conspiracy, hinting pressure from the partisan audience – away fans still prohibited – baying for blood forced Nijhuis to act irrationally and "leave a mark" on the game.

Nijhuis defended his decision: "Moisander grabbed him [Pellè] as he was trying to turn," he told Eredivisie Live. "That's a bookable offence unfortunately for him it was his second." De Boer disagreed especially when in his view Feyenoord players were getting away with only a telling off after committing worse offences. "He was severely punished.'' Former referee Mario van der Ende felt Jordy Clasie should have been dismissed six minutes from time. It's the consistency or lack thereof which infuriated De Boer.

It effectively ruined the final fifteen minutes as an even contest. Koeman buoyed introduced an extra attacker De Boer naturally reacted with a defensive minded one. His side nearly crawled past the finishing line unscathed.

Injury time looming, Pellè had the last laugh, the striker loan from Parma – and cites Filippo Inzaghi as a reference – channelled his idol with a marvellous hooked volley.  De Kuip erupted "danced on its old legs" as de Volkskrant put it. Pellè's exuberant celebration, throwing off his shirt, earned him a yellow card but it was a sacrifice worth making. "I want more female supporters in the stadium." He could have added a winner deep into injury time, a powerful header, equally met by Kenneth Vermeer. Koeman's unbeaten record in the fixture was salvaged in the most spectacular way.

John Guidetti last season's hero gave his approval from the stands, he was there as a guest of the club, receiving a farewell for his services on loan last year. The Swede also played his part in the pre-match shenanigans via the medium of twitter, predicting a Feyenoord win and referring to their opposition by Amsterdam's area code '020' which caught the ire of Ajax supporters. It's seems trivial, but in today's aggressive fan culture primarily used by the other side as a means to disparage and belittle, goes both ways with '010' being Rotterdam's equivalent. De Boer, who has a presence on the social networking site, claimed to have not seen it but reiterated motivation wouldn't be an issue.

Guidetti described it as a "typical Klassieker." It was one of the more dramatic in recent years. "This Klassieker was filled with goodies," read de Volkskrant adding it contained "excitement, passion and madness." Haarlems Dagblad felt it was a "great advertisement" for the Eredivisie and Algemeen Dagblad saw it as the best game so far this season "an intense match with two bold teams. Feyenoord and Ajax had ​​a passionate battle each with their own style and weapons."

De Telegraaf called both sides "the standard-bearers of Dutch football" a point Koeman in the build-up chose to focus on, similarities shared, notably dedication to development. This was highlighted no better in Ajax humbling the riches of Manchester City with a side containing seven youth graduates earlier in the week. It was a performance showcasing everything good about the Dutch school of football.

It's not often Feyenood and Ajax supporters agree on a specific agenda but in the last year both have taken a hard-line stance with the direction football is heading often unfurling banners proclaiming "against modern football" at matches. Ajax's win gave a small glimmer of hope to those slowly becoming disenfranchised. The teams live within their means, in a modest league, with model academies the envy of Europe. Unfortunately it also equates competing at the highest level becomes a pipe dream.

The unexpected victory catapulted Ajax into Sunday's showdown with renewed vigour. As impressed as Koeman was, he downplayed their win, repeating his assertion despite being a brilliant side there's vulnerability his team can exploit.

Being played at lunchtime might not have been seen as an advantage to Koeman but despite sounding silly it should have. In what can be only hard to describe, Ajax's recent midday record speaks for itself, six wins and seven defeats from their last eighteen. It's a theme De Boer has grown tired of – five of his six league defeats have occurred on the Eredivisie’s version of the graveyard shift – from players complaining about eating pasta for breakfast to him quipping dryly "maybe they're still asleep."

Tiredness and a relapse from their performance constantly ran through De Boer's mind, after the amount of energy exerted midweek, no side has run more than Ajax in Europe's premier competition. It could explain why they've failed to win after their outings following a Champions League tie. Mental fatigue leads to individual errors.

A lot was written of Johan Cruyff's philosophy radiating from their performance against City but one of the legendary number 14's mantra, 'the ball should do the running instead of the player', was bypassed. It's not for the want of trying, De Boer has gradually turned ball circulation into a defensive weapon the next step is limiting the amount of meters his team clocks up in the process.

The player covering the most distance is Christian Eriksen. His mobility coupled with innate playmaking attributes was one reason De Boer converted him into a deep-lying forward – "Messi role" as some have touted – against City. It was a tactical manoeuvre directly out of Cruyff's book reminiscent of Michael Laudrup during the 'dream team' period at Barcelona. It was a move no one foresaw. The feeling was just a one-off. However the Dane was asked to perform the role again, whether it becomes a permanent feature, and Eriksen can be as effective as Laudrup only time will tell.

His national team manager Morten Olsen led the compliments. "He played well, there's no doubt" but despite shining as a 'false nine' the striker position for Denmark remains in Niklas Bendtner's possession.  "I do not know if it's my best position," Eriksen said post-match. "But it feels good. I get more space and that is of course perfect for me." The Dane like he did last season gave the visitors an early lead condemning the Rotterdammers to a 42nd consecutive Klassieker without a cleansheet. At home it now reads 21 games stretching back to 1991, when they recorded a 2-0 win, De Boer on the opposite side as a fresh-faced 21-year-old full-back.

The lead lasted just over ten minutes. Jean-Paul Boëtius – latest predacious talent off the never-ending Varkenoord production line – equalised in the process becoming the first player since Harvey Esajas in 1993 to score on his league debut which just so happens to be in De Klassieker. The 18-year-old winger, nephew of Ajax alumni Urby Emanuelson – who also made his professional debut under Koeman – also became the second youngest Feyenoorder after Jimmy Simmons in 1989 to get on the scoresheet in the fixture.

Boëtius’ performance was universally lauded. "He made me really proud," Emanuelson told De Telegraaf. "It was a pleasant surprise. My mother two years ago told me I had a nephew at Feyenoord. I didn’t know he was ready. He played well and showed some real nice things. I'll leave him alone for now but I will soon call him."

Club icon Willem van Hanagem described him as "great fun" to watch. De Volkskrant could not be more impressed with his fearlessness (a trait shared by many young Dutch footballers) and referred to his playing style as "uninhibited beauty". He was one of the shining lights in a pulsating end-to-end slugfest. Koeman added after a "fantastic debut" it would be "stupid to send him back to the reserves."

Siem de Jong, shortly after the break, restored the defending champion's advantage – less exquisite than his equaliser against City – the 200th goal, in all competitions, under De Boer. It was also his seventh in nine Klassieker's. But the result not milestone preyed on his mind. "It was disappointing," he said post-match. "Everyone in the locker room looked like we had lost the game.”

A draw was a fair result neither side controlled the game as ascendency kept switching. Koeman thought otherwise, after catching his breath complimented Ajax for their role "they were better in some parts," but felt his side should have taken all three points. "I can live with the point though we missed plenty of opportunities." However the lingering question which we'll never know is: if Moisander remained would the visitors have held on? De Boer certainly thinks so. Eliminate the referee from the equation and what’s left is a breathless duel which will be remembered for all the right reasons.

Ajax left Rotterdam unbeaten in the Eredivisie and in charted territory: four wins from their first ten games same as last season. It could easily be nine wins from ten, in all but one of their six draws they led only to throw away two points, as a result they find themselves seven points off the leader – only goal difference separating them and Feyenoord – with a mountain to climb. As one newspaper recently wrote "a familiar autumn blues possess the champions."

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Equanimity and Candour in Alkmaar: A Tame Journey to the Heart of Gertjan Verbeek.

There was a hint of sarcasm drenching from Gertjan Verbeek's voice when uttering this season has been 'strange'. Initially overlooked, the judo loving authoritarian, is very much involved in the championship race. The efforts of AZ on the pitch are nothing compared to the eccentric behaviour of their manager off it. A man of many complexities and conjecture, he's risen to the occasion, rubbing a few up the wrong way in the process.

He's moulded the team from Alkmaar in his image, a hard-working outfit with equilibrium between fluid attacking and resolute defending. Honest football as he calls it. Idiosyncratic there's a Hegelian feel about the Deventer native even coming across as a frustrated philosopher. Nothing gets under his skin more than a sense of 'injustice'. This was perfectly illustrated against Heracles, a match AZ won 3-1, but the post-match dialogue surrounded Nick Viergever's dismissal.

The defender was adjudged to have handled the ball on the line, just after the home side cruised to a 3-0 lead, the correct decision. His manager didn't see it that way. Verbeek incensed made his feelings known to Jochem Kamphuis the fourth official. What was said is sketchy, but his 'aggressive approach' was enough for Kamphuis to call over referee Ruud Bossen – claiming Verbeek pushed him – who duly sent off the fuming coach. He departed not before telling Kamphuis: "You're a dirty liar. I'm not finished with you."

In front of the television cameras Verbeek vehemently denied any wrongdoing. "I can’t stand injustice especially from those who should be objective," he began. "That man lied about what I did. I'm very angry and disappointed. This after they (officials) talk about respect." As always, being forthright, there's a degree of calculation and control. The KNVB never saw it that way. They were told, to expect a visit, and any sanction imposed would be fought.

"There's a lot of morality in the Netherlands," he said a few days later. "Personally I believe you should first deal with those who lie and cheat. I believe even our government said you should stand up for what is right." Verbeek could even indulge in his trademark deadpan wit. "Currently we are in good form and contesting the championship. Well, that is unless the KNVB decide to deduct six points from us because of my disciplinary matter."

They didn’t. Verbeek kept his word making the pilgrimage to KNVB HQ in Zeist. Before setting off he promised to return with an acquittal. He took on the law and the law won. The KNVB handed him a three game ban (one conditional). "This is outrageous," he bellowed. "In this country you are innocent until proven guilty. I remained within my own area. He violated my space this could be interpreted as intimidation."

An ice cold individual, emotions rarely get the better of him, one reason is a newfound interest in the teachings of Buddha. "Buddhism appeals to me, although I do not believe in reincarnation," he enthused. "I have read a lot and become absorbed. The way they deal with problems I find nice." No doubt already familiarising himself with the first two noble truths of the Buddha. One, existence is suffering. Two, the cause of suffering is desire.

So far this season he's had to deal with a few problems, including a winter slump, which destabilised a wonderful start. A run of 10 wins from 11 games stretching from the backend of August to early December put them in the driving seat. The team no one gave a minute thought were seemingly running away with the title. But just as the chance to stretch their lead to nine points presented itself they crashed back down to earth.

Those who never had them down as contenders were starting to feel smug. Including Willem van Hanegem. "I hope gradually fewer people will take this man seriously," Verbeek retorted. "I have great respect for Van Hanegem the footballer. But, I'm sorry, in the last couple of years he's contributed nothing to Dutch football." His critics were starting to unfairly dismiss them as workmanlike and would soon drop back down to their true level. Such conclusions didn't factor in their appeasing brand of football an improvement from last term. What really let AZ down was the sudden realisation of how far they have come in such a short space of time. The spotlight was on them. As a sort of compliment teams began to approach them differently.

Last season Verbeek was content with fourth place as it quickly became evident his side were too inconsistent to challenge. This time around AZ, already nine points better off than at this stage last season, are knocking on the glass ceiling. By reaching heights never envisaged, they're now playing under new rules, maintaining the form that got them there is an absolute must. The notable summer departures of skipper Stijn Schaars, Héctor Moreno and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson were meant to hurt them.

It's been quite the opposite. Adam Maher’s emergence as well as Rasmus Elm and Pontus Wernbloom, before his departure to CSKA Moscow, self-improvements galvanised and refreshed AZ's attack. He's even displayed a small note of tactical acumen, significant given past accusations and attacks of his ineptness in this department. Wernbloom's departure allowed the formation of a fluid, dynamic and proactive midfield triumvirate of Maher, Elm and the returning Maarten Martens. A lack of a natural holding midfielder hasn't been a detriment.

Over the course of the season their back-four has been the envy of the league, letting in the fewest goals. Verbeek has instilled a 'take no prisoners' attitude amongst his defensive unit. The organisational work of Niklas Moisander (club captain) been important as well as the trust built with goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado and the other regular defenders: Viergever, Dirk Marcellis, Ragnar Klavan and Simon Poulsen. No matter who starts the compact nature stays intact.

Jozy Altidore's signing last summer raised a few eyebrows, Verbeek candidly admitting minus the odd YouTube footage he’s never seen the US striker play. However like many adjusting to a new environment Altidore was benched for a few games. In his place came Charlison Benschop, struggling for form, grabbed a hat-trick against Den Haag. Verbeek, deadpan, credited Benschop's revival to him breaking up with his girlfriend.

Earnest Stewart, technical director and former US international, was greatly involved in Altidore's acquisition. His administrative and clever management style is one reason why the club find themselves on a good footing after a difficult few years. AZ threatened to go into administration back in October 2009 months after winning their second championship, lost their main sponsor DSB Bank after they collapsed, and since recouped approximately €30M in player sales. As far as general manager Toon Gerbrands is concerned Verbeek symbolises the recovery.

It came as no surprise Verbeek putting pen to paper on a two-year contract extension. "I am happy. I have been here for a year and a half and I have a pleasant relationship with everybody," he commented afterwards. "In the Netherlands there are not many clubs that suit me. For me it is very important to work with the right people, people you can trust. This is the case here. That's why this is the right club for me."

Stewart, who has a fondness for Michael Lewis' Moneyball, the story of Billy Beane and his analytical approach to baseball, couldn't be more pleased. "Verbeek fits in with the philosophy of the club. He knows how we want to work. Gertjan has the ability to help players improve and we're proud that he's staying with us."

Navigating AZ through their turgid period was inspiring. Not showing any signs of anxiety his man-management skills came to the fore. During his brief stint at Feyenoord he was nicknamed 'Rambo' due to his industrious ethics as well as martial arts and boxing background. His sacking in 2009: after a mutiny led by senior players including Roy Makaay, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Denny Landzaat and Jon Dahl Tomasson, who disagreed with his style of management, though now firmly in the past. It still hurts.

This was his opportunity, as well as fulfilling a dream, to succeed at one of the biggest Dutch clubs. Learning from this setback his first objective once arriving in Alkmaar was getting every player as well as staff buying into his coaching methods. This was fairly straightforward as like at Heerenveen, who he managed between 2004 and 2008, he had a relatively youthful squad with a sprinkle of experience but importantly no trace of the egos he inherited in Rotterdam. He's also reinvented himself often seen as aloof with a sense of humour alien to those around him.

"Verbeek failed due to his own consistency," wrote Johan Derksen in Voetbal International. "He explained his method is holy, while the players had absolutely no understanding of his approach. Verbeek was not open to other ideas and so the players ignored his vision. This created constant conflicts." Derksen further added. "Today's coach must also be a manager of people, someone who is not afraid to argue, persuade and encourage discussion with his players."

As the wheels were coming off there was no trace of panic. Composed, he returned to a back-to-basics approach, making sure any external influences or negativity reached camp plus enforcing a siege mentality. He makes all his decisions based on the graphs on the physical condition of his players, functioning of their eyes and brains. "Success is now largely determined by the mental ability," as Verbeek put it.

Last summer he conducted a team-building exercise program involving plank walking, raft building and a coconut relay. Typical of his approach, if his players have had a tough week, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for them to take a trip to the swimming baths on the eve of the next game. When his side initially reached the summit, after a 'controversial' win over Feyenoord, he continually stressed this was the first time he's led the league as a coach. It was a simple ploy: to alleviate any subsequent pressure.

It worked, then the trip to Heerenveen where he played for more than a decade, a game he will not forget in a hurry. After being blown away 5-1 by Ron Jans impressive outfit, he recited a Christmas poem in his post-match press conference, within a subtle message to his team, supporters as well as the media: he will continue to do things his way. Comparisons were starting to be made with Louis van Gaal, the last (and second) manager to guide AZ to the title, not in terms of on the pitch but his confrontational demeanour as a way of protecting his team.

The poetry recital was on the back of an outburst, rubbishing a reporter's question his side played below par, after the goalless Europa League draw away to Malmö. When asked recently what makes him happy, he replied 'winning', no shock. There's nothing more he desires, highly competitive, since his early years he's strived to be the best. Whether it's winning a football match or playing table tennis, but knowing the limitations, fair play is at the centre of his own moral code.

Withdrawing his side after a hooligan assaulted goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado, in the cup game against Ajax before the winter break, was praised in some quarters whilst criticised in others. Verbeek reasoned they didn't feel safe. Before the incident his side were denied a penalty, his body language told a story, only a few months prior he witnessed Ajax come from two goals in the same stadium to tie the league game. Afterwards he subtly, as many in the past, accused the Amsterdam club of being on the end of hospitable refereeing. The initial cynical feeling, as he took his players off, was a protest against the official.

The recent international break also infuriated him. "It is time for us to form a united front," he began. "We no longer have the power. Some of these international coaches completely ignore the interest of the clubs. This is ridiculous." The Finnish national team coach Mixu Paatelainen was used as an example. Verbeek labelling him "completely lost" for training his players twice on Monday and Tuesday after a majority of them – including Niklas Moisander – had played the previous Sunday. "And then he's surprised that his side lost to Austria. How stupid can you get."

Moisander's experience, one of the few remaining from the 2009 title winning side, is crucial as AZ enter the final few games. Paatelainen is not the first international coach to anger Verbeek. He dubbed Jürgen Klinsmann "dumb" last September for calling-up Altidore for two friendlies taking place in Los Angeles and Brussels. "It is pure self-importance from a man who had but one year as manager with a club and got fired. That says enough."

Verbeek, a history enthusiast during his school days – would have embarked on an a career in archaeology if not ending up as a professional footballer – can be content developing AZ into a formidable machine in what has been a strange season. Like Indiana Jones his eyes are set firmly on a MacGuffin one that has eluded him for nearly 30 years. "We've been at the top of the table for almost the whole season but never seen as eventual champions. We will fight to the end that I'm convinced."

At the back of his mind will be the story of Tantalus, a ruler consumed with pride who angered the gods, his punishment eternal deprivation. A situation he does not want to befall him now the Eredivisie shield is in touching distance.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Ten Year Itch

It only seems like yesterday, Pierre van Hooijdonk scoring the most important free-kick of his career, the second goal and most memorable in the 2002 UEFA Cup final. Feyenoord, playing at their home ground, overcame Borussia Dortmund 3-2 in what was simply an enthralling contest. This May, eighth to be precise, will be the tenth anniversary of what is Bert van Marwijk's greatest achievement. Yes, Oranje (unexpectedly) reaching the 2010 World Cup final pushes it close.

What should be a moment to reflect on a rare success, won't feel like one, instead the Rotterdammers feat acts as sombre timely reminder of how far Dutch football has fallen. The date will mark a decade of dearth, in that time no silverware, not even a runners-up medal. Historically this is now the longest period Dutch football has gone without one of its clubs tasting glory on the continent.

Between Feyenoord's European Cup in 1970 under Ernst Happel – the first club to win a major honour recognised by UEFA – and their UEFA Cup success 32-years later Dutch teams have amassed eleven titles: six European Cups, four UEFA Cups and a solitary Cup Winners' Cup. The longest drought in that time was a nine year gap between Kees Rijvers guiding PSV to UEFA Cup success in 1978 and Johan Cruijff's Ajax picking up the Cup Winners' Cup in 1987.

Which is only two more than the years between Feyenoord winning their second UEFA Cup title and Louis van Gaal leading Ajax to their fourth European Cup. It remains the last by a Dutch club and as much as it pains me to say, will remain that way for another generation or two, and that's being overly optimistic.

Many factors, notably squads routinely weakened as a result of the globalising game aftertaste of the Bosman ruling, been attributed to why this is. The one anomaly being PSV agonisingly moments away from contesting the 2005 Champions League final, a side containing a wealth of experience with Guus Hiddink at the helm, were denied in the cruelest manner.

That aside there really hasn't been much to shout about in the last ten years. Once a dominant nation – six major honours in the 1970s including four consecutive European Cups three of which courtesy of Rinus Michels and Ștefan Kovács not forgetting Wiel Coerver's UEFA Cup success shortly after in 1974 – the brave new world they find themselves part of has been a difficult one to swallow.

Even in the 1980s and the decade that followed clubs, particularly the ones under the auspices of Hiddink and Van Gaal, have been at least competitive which isn’t the case now. In fact there even used to be a saying a Dutch side would win the European Cup around the time of a new James Bond debuting.

However, there's a real chance to put things right, not exactly redemption but to write a new chapter. A simple case of evolution, Darwin said it best: adapt to survive. The clubs from the Netherlands cannot compete on a financial footing – participation in the Champions League for example leads to more revenue than playing in the Eredivisie – with expensive squads.

But with the right methods of coaching and long-term development – Cruijff's 'organised chaos theory' which includes the 'Michels model' seems to be in vogue again especially at Ajax – from the grass roots up, not forgetting the occasional luck, attempting to reach the summit can no longer be seen as a pipe dream or daunting prospect.

A starting point included a fact-finding mission last month by a delegation of sporting directors visiting the big three in Portugal to see what they are doing right. The Champions League at this moment in time is put on the back burner with the objective being to conquer the Europa League.

It won't be easy. Then again Feyenoord had to do things the hard way, a decade ago, after being dumped out of the Champions League. Glasgow Rangers, PSV and Internazionale were eliminated on the route to their final. A day after that anniversary, in Bucharest, the Europa League final takes place and with four teams left in the tournament the odds are in favour of at least one being there.

Or so it seems, on paper at least, when the round of 32 draw was made in early December no nation had more representatives. This was before the draw. Ajax would of course tell you there should have only been three. As their participation was the result of falling victim to a series of unfortunate events.

A defeat to Real Madrid in Amsterdam, on the final match night of the Champions League group phase, would still have seen De Godenzonen make the last 16 for the first time since 2006. They lost, which was no shame, but the manner left a bad taste in the mouth. Two errors from the linesman denied Ajax taking the lead in the first half. Regardless, the defeat could have been soothed with news from Zagreb, but what came was another knife to the back.

Lyon, who needed a seven goal swing in their favour to progress, achieved the – what was deemed – unthinkable. In part helped by Real Madrid's 3-0 victory, but more so with their 7-1 rout. Long before the dust settled, conspiracy theories were circulating, memories of Spain's infamous win over Malta which denied Oranje a place at Euro 1984 was constantly mentioned, bringing back painful memories, this being a previous example of where the impossible did become possible.

The accusations that followed the game 27-years-ago as well as the more recent one centered around this notion of underhanded behaviour involved, which is understandable given the context and rarity of score line, but I must stress nothing illegal occurred in these games. Dynamo Zagreb and Malta were plain and simple poor on their respective days, poor enough to conceded seven or more, yes.

As the saying goes 'stuff happens' or to use a more sophisticated one Así es la vida. The two disallowed goals plus Lyon's remarkable turnaround was hard to stomach for Ajax supporters and Dutch football in general. A team in the next round of Europe's elite competition would have been a feather in the cap for the Eredivisie, it's now five years and waiting.

Hans van Breukelen, who featured in that campaign, dubbed FIFA and UEFA for being 'pre-historic' in their refusal to adopt video technology, which if already in place, may have kept Ajax in the Champions League and pocketing a reported €25M for progression to the knockout phase. De Boer recognised human error in the part of the referee but was strong in the condemnation of his linesman. "I can't blame the referee (Manuel De Sousa) for his decisions as he follows his linesman, who should retire in my opinion."

Instead Ajax dropped down to the Europa League, accepting their fate with renewed vigour to take what they're left with seriously, the same goes for AZ, PSV and FC Twente. So far combined out of 24 games the four Dutch clubs played they've won 12 with three defeats two of them inflicted by Real Madrid. The season prior it was 15 from 46 played.

The Dutch co-efficient at one stage ranked third only behind England and Spain. As the first half of the European club season closed it fell to seventh. Much of this success should be credited to PSV who collected five wins in the Europa League.

Fred Rutten's side is a complete contrast to the team that were brutally exposed by Benfica last season. A more dynamic outfit with a midfield no longer containing two holding players, just the one in Kevin Strootman, has in turn culminated with the signings of Dries Mertens, Tim Matavž and Georginio Wijnaldum plus the emergence of Zakaria Labyad in the creation of the most prolific attack, out of the four sides in Europe, which saw them qualify with a few to spare.

The only disappoint was the 3-3 draw at home to Hapoel Tel Aviv. Their most impressive result however took place at where the final this year would be held beating Rapid Bucureşti 3-1 at the majestic Stadionul Național. This new verve as well as retained industry should stand them in good stead if they're to go deeper into the tournament.

FC Twente, just behind with four wins, have also fared well – despite dismissing Co Adriaanse – their defeat on the final day shouldn't take anything away from their more stand-out performances including at home to Fulham where afterwards Adriaanse called the last minute win as 'great for Dutch football'.

In fact this attitude is shared by the other side's which has been refreshing. This collective spirit can only be good for football in the country. Also, what should please national team coach Van Marwijk, is each of the four sides include emerging players playing key roles, such as Strootman, Adam Maher, Luuk de Jong and Derk Boerrigter. A similar trait found in past successful sides which can only be encouraged.

The latter aged 25 is the oldest of the four (by a margin), but in his first season in the Dutch top flight, has produced plenty of stellar performances on the wing – reminiscent of Marc Overmars in his relentless aggression – which earned him his first call-up.

As things stand, the Eredivisie can earn a third Champions League place for the start of the 2015/16 season if not the campaign after. One side that wants to be dining at the highest level is AZ, their domestic performances – which in truth has taken plenty by surprise – has tentatively been translated in Europe. They unlike PSV and Twente left it late to confirm their place in the knockout round, with only a single win it's the weakest performance of the four sides. However like PSV they remain unbeaten.

That will be put to the test, as from here on now things become serious for all four. Ajax's reward for parachuting into the Europa League is a date with Manchester United. AZ will have a short journey across the border to face Anderlecht. FC Twente will once again cross paths with Steaua Bucureșt and PSV take a trip into the unknown against Trabzonspor.

De Boer called the clash with Manchester United as "Champions League worthy" and more than anything is looking forward to testing himself against Sir Alex Ferguson. This will only be the second meeting between the sides. The first in 1976 saw Manchester United win 2-1 on aggregate. Ruud Krol, De Boer's idol on the score sheet for the Amsterdammers.

The Dutch side will evidently go in as underdogs – entire squad costs less than what FC Barcelona paid for Cesc Fàbregas - their recent indifferent domestic form not helped by senior players out through injury makes the task even more improbable.

Stranger things have happened before, they of course have been on the receiving end of the unthinkable, this time De Boer will hope Lady Luck will be smiling down on him. They will no doubt go into the game with a 'nothing to lose' mindset plus seeing FC Basel cause the Red Devils problems, they can believe.

There's no time for sentiments with Verbeek, who decided to adopt one of Ferguson's favourite pastimes, mind games, as well as playing up to the 'underdog tag' when learning of AZ's opponents. "They are the favourites," he said. "I say that based on the fact Anderlecht has a bigger budget than AZ and are capable of playing and attracting expensive non-EU players."

A calculated gambit doesn't hide the fact, Verbeek, an overly confident coach, will fancy his team – which includes players that have come on leaps and bounds this season notably playmaker Maher – to give Anderlecht a game. But progression still depends on them being at their optimum best.

If Verbeek was feigning caution then Rutten was more blunt when discovering PSV's fate. "I'm happy with the draw," he began. "We are seen once again as the favourite to come through." His skipper Ola Toivonen added "It could have been a lot tougher." Alluding to Ajax's draw. The danger of course is to underestimate an opponent that beat Internazionale at the San Siro and denied French champions Lille European football after the winter.

As for Twente, Steve McClaren wasn't in charge when the draw was conducted, but on the day of his appointment made it clear he’ll wants a run in the competition and being the only coach out of the four to have made a final – then as the UEFA Cup – he has the pedigree as well as the squad including inform striker Luuk de Jong as well as assist maker Ola John.

A year ago three Dutch sides made it to the last 16 of Europe's second tier competition, not since the mid 1990s has that occurred. Feyenoord's win is starting to become a distant memory even if it still feels fresh, the onus (as a collective) is to better last season's performance and for one of the sides to possibly go all the way. Maybe this could be the season the long and arduous wait finally comes to an end.