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From Princes to Paupers: How Dutch Football went bust

Thursday 23rd February 2012
Holland conjures up many great memories in football folklore. This is the country that pioneered the ‘total football' style and it's teams were some of the best exponents of that style. Nationally, the Dutch stand tall as giants of the international game along with Brazil, Germany, England, Italy and Argentina to name but a few.

At club level PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and especially Ajax Amsterdam, have all tasted European Cup glory and have done it in a style that astonishes and enthralls fans. With all this great tradition it is almost tragic, therefore, that the Dutch top-flight has been in serious decline in the last decade. This demise is due to the lack of finances that Dutch clubs have to spend and the difficulty they have in keeping their best talent in Holland.

Indeed, barring any success in the UEFA Europa League this year, 2012 will mark ten years without a team from the Netherlands winning a European trophy. This comes as a shock as Dutch teams have been very successful in the European Cup over the years. It was Feyenoord that kicked things off, beating Celtic 2-1 in the European Cup final in 1970 and becoming the first Dutch side to win European silverware.

The Dutch would dominate the competition in the early 70s with Ajax winning the next three titles in a row. Rinus Michels' ‘Total football' style combined sensational football with a winning mentality and, despite only being at the helm for the 1971 victory, Michel's influential style saw the mighty Ajax conquer everyone before them. Led by the incomparable Johan Cruyff and others, Ajax wrote themselves into history – after the three consecutive wins they earned the right to keep the trophy.

It would take Ajax years to replicate their European glory but, in the mean time, their fellow countrymen Feyenoord would win their second European trophy in the form of the UEFA Cup in 1974 and four years later PSV Eindhoven would claim their first piece of European silverware by winning the same competition.

It would be ten years before a team from Holland got their hands on the European crown and it was once again PSV who claimed it as they beat Benfica on penalties in 1988. So far the last Eredivisie team to win Europe's top prize was Ajax in 1995. Louis Van Gaal's team, featuring the likes Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Edwin Van Der Sar, upset AC Milan to lift their fourth European Cup – and their first in twenty-two years.

As it stands, the last European trophy won by a club from the Netherlands was the UEFA Cup in 2002, which was won by Feyenoord. The UEFA Champions League has seen several Dutch clubs fail miserably in recent years  - the only notable exception being PSV Eindhoven, who could easily have made the 2005 final but narrowly lost out to Milan.

This competitive decline in Europe can be put down to the fact that, Dutch clubs can quite simply not compete financially with the other giants of the European game. The staggering rise in player transfers and wages has left Dutch football behind. Not only can clubs not bring in the stars that they used to, but the home grown stars are leaving for greater pastures elsewhere and clubs continually fail to persuade their best talent to remain in Holland.

As if things weren't difficult enough, many clubs have been less than shrewd with their transfer business recently. Some clubs have been guilty of letting their prized assets leave for much less than their valuation and even allowing players to go on a free when their contract expires, instead of selling before then, Ibrahim Afellay's move to Barcelona in 2011 being a recent example.

There's also the inconvenience of clubs such as Feyenoord, whose finances are bogged down in paying the high salaries of ageing players with little resale value, a situation that is ruining some of the big clubs in Holland. Even Ajax have been reduced to a shoestring budget, and this has not been helped by constant board room squabbling.

The bigger the financial woe, the more star names are offloaded to cover the cost of debts and thus the league loses that quality. Indeed it's a sad observation that the likes of Ajax have been reduced almost to a feeder club for the giants of Spain, England and Italy.

The Dutch Eredivisie is currently ranked seventh in UEFA's league rankings due to lack of success in European competition. It's difficult to see how this decline can be remedied as big clubs seem to keep upping the ante in ludicrous transfer dealings and, while there are signs that clubs in Holland may be getting their act together financially, it doesn't stop the big talent moving on.

It will take a monumental shift in the way the beautiful game conducts itself economically for the giants of Holland to return to the glory years, but it would be a tragic future indeed if clubs like Ajax were reduced to mere has-beens.
Lee Clifford

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