One of football’s astute professionals, Clarence Seedorf opines on winter breaks, racism, and why you should always insist on fresh fruit juice.
By Paolo Bandini
Photography Danilo Scarpati
This article first appeared in Issue 1 of The Green Soccer Journal, December 2010
In the surprisingly compact dining room at AC Milan’s otherwise expansive Milanello training complex, Clarence Seedorf sticks out like a sore thumb. Tracksuit bottoms and loose-fitting polo shirts are the order of the day as the squad meander in for their post-workout meal, yet the Dutchman is immaculately turned out in a black corduroy suit and grey turtleneck sweater.
It’s barely noon but for the majority of the team, the day’s work is already done. Seedorf, on the other hand, has the air of a man just warming up for the afternoon ahead. “Do you want to eat something?” he asks as his plate of spaghetti with pesto arrives from the kitchen. I decline and apologise for interrupting his meal. “No, it’s better like this,” he says. “This way we don’t waste each other’s time.”
Rarely has Seedorf given the impression of being a man with time to waste. He kicked his first ball at one-and-a-half and began playing “seriously” (his word) at six. A decade later he became Ajax’s youngest-ever first-team player, and by 19 he had won two Dutch titles and the Champions League. He was still just 20 when he joined Real Madrid, 22 when they conquered Europe and 27 when, after moving to Milan, he became the first player ever to win the Champions League with three different clubs.
How much, I ask, does this career owe to his time in an Ajax youth set-up that was then the envy of Europe? “When I was there it was really something,” he recalls. “The thing that I think gave me most was the international tournaments that we played in. Not so much on the field – of course you played against Real Madrid, you played against big international teams – but the experience off the field, being away for a weekend and staying with a family, with players of the organising team…” He trails off as the waiter places a pitcher of juice on the table. “That isn’t fresh juice, is it?” he asks. Caught off-guard, the waiter takes a second to formulate his answer. “Peaches are out of season, they won’t be available for a while yet.” “OK,” soothes Seedorf. “Do you have other fruits?” It comes as no surprise that Seedorf should be fussy about such things.
A teetotaller who also avoids coffee, he has always taken great care over the things he eats and drinks. One exasperated Italian interviewer recently asked if he had any vices at all. “I have four kids; draw your own conclusions,” came the response.
In any case, the distraction does not cause him to lose his thread. “The competition between the players was also intense at Ajax – even the older teams, because every time a young player played well they’d put him in a higher team to see if he could develop. I remember playing for a full year, Saturday and Sunday, Saturday-Sunday, Saturday-Sunday every week with two teams. For my own team and then playing with a team that was two years older.”
Times, though, have changed. When Seedorf returned to his old stomping ground with Milan last month in the Champions League he found a team that has not won a European trophy since he departed, nor even the Dutch Eredivisie since 2004. Ajax’s youth set-up is no longer regarded as it once was, and the talents that do emerge rarely linger.
“Globalisation has changed world football,” sighs Seedorf. “Players are getting pulled out by other big teams at such an early stage. And if you cannot compete money-wise then you lose your players.
So investing in your own youth … until a couple of years ago it was very, very difficult to keep the players you developed. But that’s going to change again because I think that the economic crisis is helping us to get back to having a little bit more common sense in the world of football.”
“In the end you need to have more competitive teams to have a good market. If only a few teams are driving the car then it becomes a little bit boring for the spectator. So I think that those times will come back and then most probably clubs like Ajax can go back to their philosophy of being patient with their players, of players not leaving them at 14-15 years old.”
If it is not the sort of answer you expect to hear from a footballer, then it is precisely the sort of answer we are accustomed to hearing from a man described by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera as “part footballer, part philosopher”. In possession of an inquisitive mind and a solid academic background – in his spare time he is studying for a masters degree in business – Seedorf is well read, articulate and opinionated.
Unafraid to question the order of things, his outlook was perhaps best summed up in a quote attributed to Milan’s former club psychologist Bruno de Michelis. Most footballers would defecate on a pitch if their manager told them to, De Michelis reportedly claimed. “But Seedorf would say: ‘Certainly, Sir, but what colour should our shit be?’”
The fate of young footballers is an area in which he has a particularly keen interest. Away from the pitch he has invested heavily in On Champions – a “global academy project” which aims to set up an international network of football academies and schools with a heavy emphasis on personal and academic, as well as footballing, development. Too many players, he fears, struggle with the demands of being given too much, too soon.
That might sound a little rich coming from a player who achieved as much as Seedorf did before he had even turned 20, but he is quick to defend his position. “Not all young players are ready to cope with the big money and everything that comes with it,” he says. “Talent is not enough to make you ready. Those talents who are ready from 360 degrees, great, you bring them through. But those who are not, shouldn’t come up yet.” Such thinking is at the heart of the model he is trying to establish at Monza, the Lega Pro (third-tier) side which he bought along with a group of investors last summer. Seedorf’s manager instructed us before our interview that he would not take questions about the project, but he has made it clear before now that youth development will be “the heart of the club”.
“Not all young players are ready to cope with the big money and everything that comes with it.”
There is a certain irony, of course, to the fact that all this is coming from a 34-year-old who is still a regular feature in a Milan team that has built a reputation for keeping its old-stagers going longer than most. Does he ever worry that he is, by his mere presence, stopping a younger player from getting their break? “No. Because in sport it’s not about young and old, it’s how good you are,” he says. “As long as I’m better than the others I will be playing.”
That much is debatable in Italy, of all countries, where top-flight teams are far more wary of giving teenagers a run-out and many players don’t get their break until well into their twenties. He contradicts himself somewhat by raising the plight of the Juventus youth team star Sebastian Giovinco, who spent the best part of the last two years on the bench in Turin before finally, at 23, being loaned out to Parma.
Italian football is facing up to some even bigger problems at present though – from a falling Uefa coefficient that will see them lose their fourth Champions League berth to Germany next season, to violence in the stands – yet one charge that Seedorf will not accept is that the country has a problem with racism. Inter’s game at Cagliari in October was stopped for several minutes, with the referee threatening an abandonment after Samuel Eto’o was subjected to monkey chants. Seedorf himself has been targeted before, yet he believes the issue is being distorted.
“I don’t think there’s racism in Italy, I think there’s ignorance and that’s a big difference,” he explains. “There are racist actions that are being expressed – let’s say that the ignorance is being expressed in racism – but that doesn’t mean the people are racist. My friends and family come here and go around, and in the 11 years I’ve been here they’ve never had any trouble.
“I’ve been through some racism, and if they go ‘buu-buu-buu’ (he imitates the monkey noises directed at Eto’o) in the stands I really cannot say that they are racist just because of that. To a white Italian player, they will say other things – about his mum, or whatever. They try to hurt you. With their intelligence they try to get to your weak spot. So if you’re sensitive for the buu-buu, then they’ve got you, man.
If you’re not, then you don’t see it as racism. It’s just stupid people – and normally a small group, too.”
“Instead of stressing the fact of racism we should be talking about integration,” he continues, hitting his stride. “Because tell me – in what other sports can we find a mixture of cultures like we can find in football? Where people go along in the dressing room and live together 300 days of the year in a peaceful way. Talk about that and that’s what will be in the heads of the people. And you will eliminate, bit by bit, those few stupid people who are doing stupid actions. I always say that ignoring the small group is better than giving them all the attention all the time.”
But Seedorf does have other concerns regarding modern football. “Too many games,” he says as he reflects on the rising number of serious injuries at the top level of the sport. “That’s one of the negative aspects, in my opinion, that has been growing over the last 20 years. Playing always more and more and more games.
“The quality doesn’t get better. Instead people get annoyed – every day there’s a game. And I think that the performance and entertainment of the game is getting less for the amount of matches that we see. That has to be the case because you cannot perform every three days the whole year. It’s not possible. And it’s just more matches, international matches, club matches … and that’s fine, but we can see that in the cold of January, February, there are always a lot of injuries.”
This too seems to contradict his previous discussion about the merits of playing twice each weekend in the Ajax youth set-up. Could it be, I venture, that he is just getting a little older? “I’m not talking about myself,” he retorts. “There has been a request in England to have a winter break. In Germany they have extended the winter break. In Italy they have asked for a longer winter break. And I think it’s ridiculous that you’re still in preparation in August for friendly matches for national teams. People are just getting back from the World Cup and they’re still in preparation.”
He does, though, foresee a solution. “They need to create a European league. That’s my opinion. More quality, less games. I think everybody will benefit in the end from that.”
Even the smaller teams who don’t get in? “I don’t know. But when you make changes there is always something you have to sacrifice. And also for the smaller teams it can be good – it will bring back a little bit more balance. It’s going to be a revolutionary thing but actually I don’t see how it cannot happen in the future. Because of money but also because of the quality of the games. Why is the Champions League so successful? That’s the concept.”
It is not the first time Seedorf has called for drastic changes in football. He has long been a vociferous proponent of the use of video technology to assist referees. “We have to wait for the right leaders,” he sighs when I point out that even things that could provide a seemingly obvious benefit do not always get introduced. As eloquently as he speaks on these subjects, though, Seedorf does not see himself as the man to implement the change.
“No. To be honest, I don’t think about this,” he says when I ask if he could foresee a career for himself down the line at Uefa or even Fifa. “It is too far ahead. [Michel] Platini is doing a great job at Uefa. I think he could be there quite a while. My comments are not to criticise – it’s trying to improve the world that has given me so much. You know that you cannot please everybody. But for the benefit of the game, in the long term, things need to be changed.”
“My comments are not to criticise – it’s trying to improve the world that has given me so much. You know that you cannot please everybody. But for the benefit of the game, in the long term, things need to be changed.”
For now, Seedorf is happy right where he is. “I’m really fit, physically and mentally, so I don’t feel any limits on how long I should be playing. I think that some more years here in Milan is the most realistic thing we can think about.”
Walking around Milanello, situated up in the hills to the north of Milan, it is not hard to see why he would be keen to hang around. On the unseasonably warm autumn day of our visit, the view is breathtaking – pitch after perfect green pitch rolling for what feels like miles down the hillside and surrounded by tall trees, the golden leaves of which are just beginning to fall.
Towards the bottom of the site is Milan Lab, the famous training facility where all manner of scientific readings are taken to help ensure that each player’s regime is geared specifically to their individual needs. The methods employed there have been credited with extending the careers of players such as Paolo Maldini long beyond what they might otherwise have managed. That, too, could be of benefit to Seedorf in the coming years.
But such considerations alone would not be enough. If Seedorf is staying at Milan it is because he believes this team can continue to challenge for major honours. “I always think we can win the league,” he says when I ask if the team are ready to end their city rivals’ – Internazionale’s – run of five consecutive Serie A titles (including the one they were awarded following the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal in 2006). “You have to think like that otherwise you’re dead.”
“Realistically, though?” He pauses and hums thoughtfully for a few seconds before unleashing a broad grin. “Yes, I think we can win the league.”
With that, he polishes off his pasta and the interview comes to an end. The day is yet young and there is still much to be done. And no time to waste.