The Eredivisie has long been a breeding ground for many renowned footballers, with domestic heroes like Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Johan Cruyff matched by the progressions Ronaldo, Romário and Zlatan Ibrahimović made in the Netherlands. On 7 October 2007, however, the league witnessed a performance that surpassed all of these legendary figures.
Dutch football is dominated by the big three of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. These clubs dominate off the field as well as on it. Any player who performs to a high level for a club outside of that trio is highly likely to be signed by one of them, their spending power a long way beyond those around them.
Klaus-Jan Huntelaar scored 16 times for Heerenveen during the 2004/05 season. Halfway through the next campaign, he’d already bagged 17 goals, so Ajax paid £7m to sign him in January, leaving Heerenveen flush with funds and in the market for a striker.
The scouts settled on a Brazilian striker playing in Sweden for Malmö. In Summer 2006, Afonso Alves was in his fifth season of Swedish football. He’d been a consistent goal scorer for his current employers and those before, namely Örgryte, who signed him after the promising return of four goals in six games during his breakthrough at Atlético Mineiro. His move to Heerenveen signalled the coming of a player many in Brazil believed would represent the national team.
Alves’ signing proved to be inspired, scoring 34 league goals in a debut campaign that Heerenveen finished fifth. Alves began with a crisp half-volley from right to left across the goalkeeper at Den Haag – a sure sign of clinical goalscorer. The goals flowed thereafter, and with brilliant variation, with seemingly every type of picture-perfect effort buried, from diving headers and long-range piledrivers to clinical tap-ins and top-class volleys.
With five hat-tricks under his belt, on the final day of the season, Heerenveen played Feyenoord. Four Alves strikes later and Heerenveen had seen Goliath off 5-1 to finish two points above Feyenoord. More than just the acclaim of four goals, however, was how he scored them – two free-kicks, a quite spectacular solo effort and a penalty.
For some, it looked like the second coming of Ronaldo or the return of Romário. Dutch football had seemingly found the next great Brazilian striker. As rumours swirled, Real Madrid and Internazionale had their scouts visit the club. How could Heerenveen keep this stunning talent, one en route to becoming the deadliest marksman – on paper at least – in Europe? In the end, no bid came in and the rumours slowly fizzled away.
Alves missed the first five games of Heerenveen’s next campaign, taking his place for the sixth at Feyenoord but substituted at half-time following a lacklustre display by De Superfriezen. Then came 7 October.
Named after the son of Greek god Zeus, in 1903 a Dutch football club was born, one we know today as Heracles Almelo. When Heerenveen played their league rivals on that fateful day in October 2007, Heracles sadly lacked the spirit and strength of their name. Instead, it flowed through Afonso Alves.
Ten minutes into the match, a low pass threaded through the retreating Heracles defence found Alves. After steadying himself, his shot was saved but he put the rebound away easily. One.
Five minutes later, Heerenveen had a free-kick 30 yards from goal. With his now-customary accuracy, he put it to the goalkeeper’s side but the stopper barely moved. It was magnificent. Two.
Two minutes, the hat-trick was complete, a Thierry Henry-esque finish finding the bottom corner to secure the match ball, and most likely, the points. Three.
Alves then took a break. It wouldn’t be until the 68th minute that he’d score again, this time beating a defender with close control before firing through the desperate ‘keeper’s legs. Four.
Following a cross that evaded seemingly everyone Heracles defender, Alves would net again, his movement and instinct for goal showing he could score all types. Five.
By 74 minutes, records were breaking. Thanks to a cut-back from Miralem Sulejmani, a wide-open Alves miscontrols but sees his effort go in anyway, with the Heracles defence yards away. It was ugly, but it was in. Six.
Showing his bravery and dedication to scoring – reminiscent for many at the time of a young Mário Jardel – Alves’ final goal shows his strength and balance as he holds off two defenders to get on the end of a free-kick. Seven.
Alves’ Heerenveen career had peaked. Arguably his whole career peaked. Four more goals would follow for Heerenveen before signing for Middlesbrough in January 2008. Not Real Madrid, not Barcelona, not Inter – Middlesbrough. The fee was a cool £17m.
Alves was greeted by Samba dancers, Brazilian flags and a frenzy of excitement at the Riverside. While Europe’s footballing giants no longer believed Alves to be the second coming, the Middlesbrough fans did, enamoured with a goalscoring record that stacked up against the very best.
Sadly for the fans, it wasn’t until April that Alves would hit those heights again, two goals at home to Manchester United demonstrating his undoubted talent. Still, though, the doubts regarding his adaptation to a higher standard of football remained. That was until the final game of the season.
Welcoming Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Manchester City, a comprehensive, unforgettable 8-1 win would see the Brazilian make his name in English football with a hat-trick to whet the appetite and raise expectations again ahead of the next season.
It wouldn’t last long. Just seven goals in 35 games represented a poor return as Boro were relegated. By February, Alves was written off by many as an expensive mistake. It was no surprise, then, that the club cut their losses and sold him for a cut-price £7m to Al-Sadd in Qatar, a move that represented the end of his time in Europe.
A cautionary tale regarding the signing of strikers from the Eredivisie, while some once predicted that Afonso Alves go on to great things at big European clubs and emulate the likes of Ronaldo, Romário and Van Basten, his career would slowly burn out. Despite that, his 34-goal league season will always remain – a tally that has only been broken on a handful of occasions in the Eredivisie.
By Peter Prickett @PeterPrickett