From the relentless Grand Slam dominance of the Williams sisters to the squabbling rock ‘n’ roll petulance of the Gallagher brothers, there are few things in life capable of compelling the masses more than the sight of two siblings excelling together within the same realm. In this sense, football is no exception.
Whether it’s the chalk and cheese brilliance of England World Cup heroes Bobby and Jack Charlton, or the elegant artistry of Danish magicians Brian and Michael Laudrup, the history of the beautiful game has been frequently illuminated by brothers who came of age together before embarking on separate paths to footballing stardom. There are few in football’s pantheon of esteemed siblings, however, whose paths to glory were so intertwined as that of Ronald and Frank de Boer.
The elder of the two brothers by ten minutes, Ronald was the versatile playmaker whose blend of vision, guile, and goalscoring allowed him to shine in an array of attacking roles for both club and country. Frank, on the other hand, was an elegant defender steeped in Totaalvoetbal tradition.
Sharing the trait of versatility with his sibling, the younger De Boer would begin his career as a left-back before evolving into a ball-playing centre-half, his combination of leadership, finesse, and set-piece prowess placing him in lineal succession to the likes of Frank Rijkaard and Ronald Koeman.
Over the course of their two-decade playing careers, the Dutch duo came, saw, and conquered in numerous countries across Europe and beyond, whilst somehow always conspiring to end up in the same place at the same time.
Their journey would begin in the picturesque setting of Hoorn, a small but historic city 22 miles north of Amsterdam. Born on 15 May 1970, Ronaldus and Franciscus De Boer were obsessed with football from day one. Inheriting their passion from father Kees, the twin’s first forays in the beautiful game would occur at the tender age of two, with the pair honing their soon be famous skills in the inappropriate confines of the family living room.
If the infant siblings possessed precocious talent, you wouldn’t have been able to tell by looking at the furniture. For years, the pair drove their mother Git wild as wayward shots broke ornament after ornament, with Ronald later recalling to the Daily Record: “The cabinet along the wall was on four wooden legs so it had space underneath. That was the goal in the living room. My mum has often talked about all the things we broke.’’
Eventually, it would be defenders, not crockery, that bore the brunt of the De Boers’ competitive spirit as the brothers swapped the living room for the more conventional confines of the football pitch. Beginning their youth careers at local club VV De Zouaven aged seven, the siblings quickly began to stand out from the crowd. With both possessing levels of technical ability way beyond their years, it wouldn’t be long before the giants of the Dutch game came calling.
The most pivotal moment of the De Boers’ career would occur in 1984 when the pair were recruited by the Ajax academy. With youth development in the Netherlands at its apex, big things were expected of the next generation of stars to emerge from De Toekomst. Few, if any, however, could have anticipated the seismic impact the brothers and their fellow graduates would wield in the game over the next twenty years.
Sat at the heart of de Godenzonen’s famed academy was a cohort of Dutch prospects who would shift the tectonic plates of the European game in the nineties, whilst forming the nucleus of the last great Oranje team to date. Over the next decade, a plethora of homegrown talent including Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert would emerge from the youth team and bring about a fresh golden age for the club.
Whilst the monumental influence of Johan Cruyff cannot be understated – Cruyff was Ajax manager between 1985 and 1988 and gave Ronald his first-team debut – it would be under the stewardship of the great man’s old nemesis, Louis van Gaal, that the siblings truly came of age.
Having been sold to Twente in 1991, Ronald would return to Ajax 18 months later to join his twin in Van Gaal’s flourishing side. Over the next three seasons, the pair would become vital cogs in a team that won three successive Eredivisie titles alongside the 1993 KNVB Cup. It would be in Europe, however, where the De Boers would enjoy their finest hour.
Aided by the timeless brilliance of Rijkaard and the foreign finesse of Jari Litmanen, a team made up largely of academy graduates and young domestic recruits upset the odds to defeat Fabio Capello’s AC Milan in the 1995 Champions League final.
If that victory alone wasn’t impressive enough, the team had achieved this feat playing an irresistible brand of football throughout the season that was at once relentless, disciplined, free-flowing, and expansive. With their dynamic blend of versatility, creativity, and work rate, the twins from Hoorn had proven themselves more than worthy of their places in the team.
Whilst the financial clout of Europe’s big leagues resulted in the inevitable break-up of the Ajax squad, the brothers would remain in Amsterdam for a further three and a half seasons. Such was the esteem the pair were held in that following sales of stars like Kluivert, Davids and Marc Overmars, the club’s board attempted to appease fans by stating publicly their intentions to build another Europe conquering team around the De Boers.
Their success at club level would be matched by stellar international careers. Between 1992 and 2000, the pair would represent the Netherlands in a combined nine major international tournaments. Their closest brushes with international glory would occur at the 1998 World Cup in France and the homecoming European Championships in 2000, with both tournaments ending in penalty shootout heartbreak in the semi-finals.
Although international silverware evaded them, a combined tally of 179 caps bears testament to the enduring class of two men who spent a generation competing at the very top of world football.
Their romance with Ajax would hit the buffers at the turn of the decade. Months after signing six-year contracts, the pair sought an exit from the Amsterdam ArenA amid frustrations with the club’s perceived lack of ambition. What followed was a lengthy court case that soured the relationship between the De Boers and the Ajax hierarchy. When an exit was finally arranged, the brothers took the logical next step on the Totaalvoetbal pilgrimage, joining mentor Van Gaal at Barcelona in January 1999 for a combined £22,.
While Frank would enjoy more success at the Camp Nou – the Netherlands captain would spend three and half seasons at the heart of the Blaugrana defence – Ronald struggled to make the desired impact, with the midfielder’s previously impressive scoring rate dropping to just one goal in 33 LaLiga appearances.
Seeking an early exit from Catalonia, Ronald would find solace in Glasgow in the summer of 2000 when he joined Dick Advocaat’s Dutch revolution at Rangers. Like Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup before him, the elder De Boer found Ibrox to be the perfect place for a career renaissance, with the midfielder producing some of his finest football to date over four scintillating seasons. His best campaign would occur in 2002/03, when his 20 goals in all competitions helped Rangers win a domestic treble.
Ronald’s final year in Scotland would see him once again reunited with Frank. After a thankless six months in Turkey with Galatasaray, the defender joined his brother at Rangers midway through the 2003/04 campaign. Although now in the twilight of his career, the younger De Boer showed more than enough quality in his half-season with the Gers to ensure both brothers departed with the best wishes of the Ibrox faithful.
Fittingly, the De Boers would depart Glasgow together, this time to finish their careers in Qatar. By this point, the only thing more certain than the siblings ending up in the same place was that success would soon follow, and the Gulf state was no exception. In 2005, the pair would taste silverware for the final time in their playing careers, winning the Emir of Qatar Cup with Al-Rayyan before spending their final years at Al-Shamal.
In a world where many siblings struggle to get through an annual festive meal without simmering resentment rising to the surface, it seemed improbable that the brothers, after spending the best part of thirty-five years side by side, were still achieving success together. In reality, we should have expected nothing less from Ronald and Frank de Boer: united in glory, hardship and conflict, but above all, united in excellence.
By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92