Clarence Seedorf: the Botafogo diaries

Clarence Seedorf: the Botafogo diaries

Clarence Seedorf left Milan in 2012 after a decade laden with success. At 36, many expected him to retire quietly and find one last payday, but such an idea is far from the Dutchman’s character. Austere and driven, he was intent on gaining new experience and assuming a senior role in an up-and-coming team that would aid his transition to management.

He chose Botafogo. He had been pursued by several clubs from all over the world, but decided that he wanted to end an illustrious career with one last dance in Rio de Janeiro. He signed a two-year deal that was the most lucrative ever handed to a foreign player in Brazil, with Botafogo president Maurício Assumpção effusive in his praise. “He’s the greatest foreign player to ever sign for a Brazilian club,” he told Reuters. “He is really not coming for the money. He is a player driven by challenges, and he told me that Brazilian football is where he can play at a high level for another two years. He is not only coming to visit.”

Assumpção was right to be overjoyed with his new signing – Seedorf was a born winner. Botafogo was his sixth club, joining an elite cadre that included Ajax, Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Inter and Milan. He had won league titles in every country in which he competed, as well as domestic cups, the Intercontinental Cup, the Club World Cup, and four Champions Leagues. Despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s best efforts at Juventus, he remains the only player to have won Europe’s premier competition with three different clubs.

The move shocked many, but upon closer inspection made sense. Seedorf had been born in Suriname, which shares a border with Brazil, and he had lived there until his family moved to the Netherlands when he was a child. His wife, Luviana, is Brazilian, and he can speak fluent Portuguese. Botafogo was rumoured to be his wife’s childhood club.

“Botafogo is a magical, different club,” explained supporter Matheus Cuba. “Botafogo, alongside Pelé’s Santos, was one of the greatest football teams in Brazil during the 1960s and 1970s, and Brazil had a lot of their players in the World Cup titles of 1962 and 1970, such as Garrincha, Nílton Santos and Jairzinho. Today we are going through a tough financial situation, but we are still part of the group of the 12 biggest teams in the country.”

The timing suited Seedorf perfectly. Brazil was, and still is, in a strong position in South American football, with journalist Rupert Fryer identifying it as the most high-profile league on the continent. “The financial resources available to Brazilian clubs dwarfs those of everyone else in South America,” he explained, a fact aided by the strength of Brazil’s economy at the beginning of the decade. “Brazil was experiencing an economic boom at the time and, with considerable investment from sponsors, clubs were able to bring in a whole host of big names from abroad and repatriate Brazilians who were playing elsewhere.”

Fluent in six languages, Seedorf holds a masters degree in business, owns a Milanese restaurant, and runs both a sports-business company and a charity. “I’ve never seen such a strong personality,” remarked Bruno Demichelis, Milan’s former club psychologist, in The Guardian. “He talked 10 percent like a player, 70 percent like a coach, and 20 percent like a general manager.” Demichelis explained that if a manager told the players to defecate on the pitch, the players would do it without question, but Seedorf would ask what colour it should be.

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that as soon as he arrived at Botafogo he engaged actively in matters off the pitch, criticising the disorganisation of domestic football in Brazil and supporting the nascent Bom Senso movement – a player-led organisation that sought to improve conditions for players and clubs in the country. Brazil has a robust football culture, with fans that climb into the tens of millions at some clubs, but their collective development has been stunted by bureaucratic national and state federations.

“Seedorf raised the bar both on and off the field during his time at the club, with administrators and playing staff both agreeing he set a new standard during his short spell,” explains Fryer. “The press also took to him, and his ability to speak Portuguese made him instantly more relatable. Time and again he was only too happy to engage with the media and spoke intelligently and articulately about Brazilian football and wider society. He was affable and friendly and quickly won over most who thought he was there just for a payday and an extended holiday.”

Such extracurricular activity didn’t negate his contribution on the pitch, however. Images of him shirtless during the first week of training with Botafogo revealed his exemplar physique and went viral, with fitness coach Leandro Cardoso labelling him a “remarkable athlete”.

Seedorf embraced his role of elder statesman while maintaining his performance levels. Centre-back Dória remarked, “It’s fantastic to have Seedorf leading us. He is a guy with a winning spirit and his presence lifts us, increasing our will to win. He helps us on and off the pitch.” Goalkeeper Jefferson credited him with helping him grow as “both a man and a professional”.

Most midfielders drop deeper as they enter their advanced years, utilising their intelligence, experience, and technical ability to compensate for their physical decline. Seedorf did the opposite – he worked in tandem with Botafogo coach Oswaldo de Oliveira to assume a more advanced position.

He created more scoring opportunities than anyone else in the 2013 Brasileirão, eventually scoring 17 goals in 59 appearances for a club he credited with helping him rediscover his verve. “Playing in Brazil was also like going back to my youth,” he would tell The Guardian. “In terms of the position I played, the freedom and creativity I felt on the pitch, and the simple appreciation of playing football.”

“In Europe, a lot of coaches are very schematic when it comes to attacking, but the further south you go, the more players have the freedom to use their creativity,” he explained to FIFA. “If you watch the Netherlands or Denmark and then you watch Spain, it’s completely different. It’s within Europe, but there’s much more freedom to switch positions or take people on.

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“In Brazil, because of the level of individual quality, coaches give their players that freedom. They want their players to run at people. If you’ve got two men marking you, players here think they can beat them both no problem, and that’s what they’ll try and do. If you did that in the Netherlands they’d yell at you. ‘Two players? Pass the ball back, keep it moving.’ It’s a different mindset. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but I certainly feel closer to the Brazilian way.”

He arrived mid-season in 2012, so it wasn’t until his first full campaign that his influence was felt in its entirety. Botafogo started strong, losing just three of their first 21 and emerging as unlikely title contenders. “The team had good players, such as goalkeeper Jefferson, who played for Brazil at the time, former Sevilla midfielder Renato, and the striker Elkeson, who now plays for China,” recalled Cuba. “But Seedorf, without a doubt, was signed to be the team’s key player. He played a different role than he was used to in his career, closer to the attack, and scored many goals.”

Their form dipped toward the end of the season and hopes of a title challenge faded, so their focus instead shifted to securing Copa Libertadores qualification for the first time since 1996. It went down to the final day, with Botafogo defeating Criciúma 3–0 at the Maracanã to confirm their place in South America’s premier competition. Seedorf, labelled “o craque” by Globoesporte, scored the final goal and tearfully embraced De Oliveira as he was substituted late on. It would be his final appearance as a professional footballer. A month later, he was named head coach of AC Milan.

Seedorf won two trophies with Botafogo – the Campeonato Carioca and the Taça Guanabara, both competitions amongst clubs from the state of Rio de Janeiro, but the most tangible success he gained from his South American adventure was his development as a coach.

“Spending the final years of my playing career with Botafogo in Brazil, together with the role I had alongside head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira, gave me the chance to prepare for what was to come,” Seedorf told The Guardian. “I’ve been privileged, from a young age, to live football around the world. The experiences that gives you are invaluable.

“I was able to work closely with the coaching staff there, too – doing a lot of work with the analytical team, individual analysis, game analysis. Being part of the discussions. I was very much ‘in the kitchen’. I also had the chance to work with the under-16s and under-17s, which meant I could complete the practical part of my coaching courses. It was tough, but I was committed as I knew it was taking me somewhere.”

Seedorf’s coaching career may not have developed since in the manner in which he would have hoped, but there’s no doubt that his swansong at Botafogo was a fitting end to an incredible playing career. Cuba reveals that while some Botafogo supporters were disappointed that he chose not to stay and compete in the Copa Libertadores, many consider him an idol. “Definitely, to have Seedorf play for us was remarkable and unique.”

Those two adjectives that could just as easily surmise the man himself.

By Alan Feehely @azulfeehely

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