Saturday, March 21, 2009

John Dykes: Uefa Quarterfinals

“John Dykes is the lead presenter of the Barclays Premier League, and host of ESPN’s Football Focus, Football Up Close, and First Edition. For more of John Dykes' columns please visit www.espnstar.com”

Even as the UEFA Champions League quarter-final draw is made in Switzerland Friday, post-mortem inquests are still being carried out in Italy and Madrid into their Euro-representatives' exit at the hands of English clubs. This week also brought a reminder of another once-great European football power which these days can only dream of representation in the Champions League's later stages.
Passing through Singapore was Reinier "Rene" van de Kerkhof, the former PSV star who appeared in two World Cup Finals (1974 and 1978) and played his football during a decade when the Dutch and their Total Football captured the world's imagination. Feyenoord won the European Cup in 1970 before Ajax, under the tutelage of master coach Rinus Michels and inspired by Johann Cruyff, won it the next three years in a row. The 1980s brought a win for PSV (1988) and the 1990s another for Ajax (1995) but since then the Dutch have fallen on hard times.

"We still have players but they are not in Holland," lamented van de Kerkhof. "They are in England, Spain, France. The money is with England now and that is why they have the power in Europe.

To illustrate just how far the Dutch have fallen, the last five years of Champions league football have brought slim pickings for fans of the Eredivisie's finest: Back in season 2004/05, PSV lost in the semi-final to AC Milan on the away goals rule but since then the best they have managed is a quarter-finals appearance in 2007. Ajax have done no better than a first knockout round loss in 2006 while this season saw PSV exit at the group stage.

To someone who grew up hand-painting his subbuteo players in the iconic Ajax white and red, it is the demise of the Amsterdam giants that I find the most shocking. Despite a 3-0 triumph over De Graafschap at the weekend, Ajax are still in third place, 14 points behind leaders AZ Alkmaar. PSV are down in fifth place, way off the pace.

“Alkmaar are 11 points ahead of [second-placed] Twente now, so we can give them the title," shrugged van de Kerkhof. "It is not going to be the season for PSV, they cannot catch up this time."

PSV are also faced with the shocking prospect of not qualifying for Europe, let alone the Champions League qualifiers. In what was once an Eredivisie showcase showdown, last weekend saw Feyenoord, the team in 10th, beat the fifth-placed side in a scrappy 1-0.

"I'd already given up on second place," said PSV's caretaker-manager Dwight Lodeweges. "We're trying to make it into Europe and even that's no longer in our own hands. We need to get back in our cages."

An interesting turn of phrase for sure. Meanwhile, Feyenoord are slowly turning things around after a series of financial calamities led to a wretched start to the season. They have found some investment from wealthy Rotterdammers and look as they will rebuild for the near future.

Money is also at the heart of Ajax's problems. They are even more of a selling club than ever. In the past 18 months they have lost the services of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Ryan Babel, Wesley Sneijder, Zdenek Grygera, Hedwiges Maduro and Johnny Heitinga. Although they still pride themselves on developing youth, they are only capable of bringing in "premium" players of the likes of Serbian attacking midfielder Miralem Sulejmani and striker Dario Cvitanich, who took until December to score his first league goal.

Ajax chairman Michael van Praag foresaw problems for the club as far back as the year 2000 when Ajax went into a centenary season knowing that any further European Cup successes might be a long time in coming.

In a highly prescient interview, van Praag said: ""It might take a few years to repeat that (European) success, but I also predict that if the market doesn't change we'd have to wait quite a long time if ever we're able to do it again."

Clubs like Ajax saw it coming as soon as the Bosman Ruling on freedom of contract (it scrapped limits on the number of non-nationals and allowed out-of-contract players to leave for nothing) came into effect. The massive disparity in broadcast revenue between the Dutch clubs and those in Britain especially also spelled doom: English clubs were getting 10 times what Ajax received from a Dutch broadcaster.

In a statement that will have resonated with UEFA President Michel Platini, van Praag laid out a depressing scenario where Scandinavian, Scottish, Dutch and Portuguese clubs played only a peripheral role in Europe. His solution to the problem was the creation of a Europe-wide league or series of leagues with regional "feeder" championships, mirroring the American sporting model.

"It is in nobody's interest to have a situation where only five countries of Europe dominate the football market. If you consider Europe to be one country, why not have a competition in that country. I'm positive that between now and 10 years time there will be a European competition."

Remember, he made those comments nearly 10 years ago. Things have only worsened for the Dutch.

If there is any consolation, and Rene van de Kerkhof believes there it, it is that the Dutch national team is still as talented as ever. While he still rates the class of '74 as the best Oranje squad ever, he points to the European Championship-winning side of 1988 and -- in his opinion -- a superior crop from Euro 2000 as evidence that the Dutch will always form a potent team when they return from their overseas postings.

So he, and those who follow the fortunes of the Dutch in European club competition, will have to focus on the draw from the perspectives of Dirk Kuyt, Mark Van Bommel, Robin van Persie, Ryan Babel and Edwin van de Sar and the English and German clubs they represent if they are to have any continued involvement in the European Cup this season. We have come a long way from the '70s, Cruyff and subbuteo.

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