Tim Vickery Column: One door opening for Clarence Seedorf closes another; we just wish it wasn’t so soon
The main character waked through such a door as a child, and entered a garden where he found pleasure on such a deep level that he spent his entire life in search of the same feeling.
As an adult the door appeared before him on three separate occasions. Each time he was busy with an important engagement and did not go through. The story ends with his death. He has walked through a door and fallen, as I recall, down a lift shaft. But as he lies dead at the bottom there is a broad smile on his face.
I have thought about this story, for the first time in decades, over the last few days, because I am sure it has some relevance to the set of choices that lay before Clarence Seedorf.
When, out of the blue, he was offered the chance to coach Milan, Seedorf must have felt that he was standing in front of such a door. He has been preparing to become a coach. After ten years there as a player he has a special bond with Milan. And he took over with a wonderful combination of proximity and distance; until eighteen months ago he was a Milan player, giving him intimate knowledge of the staff and the set up. But on the other hand, spending a year and a half on the other side of the Atlantic has supplied a sense of perspective and a separation from former colleagues that makes it much easier to become the boss.
It was impossible, then, to say no to the offer. Seedorf went to bed last Monday night as a Botafogo player and woke up on Tuesday as Milan coach. After all, there was no guarantee that Milan would come knocking again. The door might not reappear.
But there is another way of looking at this. Perhaps Seedorf was already in the garden of infinite pleasure. Maybe it was playing for Botafogo that gave him the real opportunity to walk through the door in the wall.
A few months ago, when Botafogo were right in contention to win the Brazilian Championship, the great Tostao wrote the following; “the current moment is not the best of Seedorf’s career, but it might well be the most pleasurable, carefree and inventive. I imagine that Seedorf is playing today the way that he dreamt of as a child, and never had a chance to put into practice before, because of the rigidity of European discipline.”
There is great wisdom here, and perhaps an error, too. Seedorf in Europe was not restricted by some tactical straight jacket – after all, there is room enough for Lionel Messi to do as he pleases. Rather, Seedorf, for all his greatness, was never anything like quite so outstanding in Europe. But in Brazil he stood head and shoulders above all around him. He was technically better, tactically more aware, intellectually superior and more committed to the collective cause. As a result, he became the Botafogo team. He was given free license inside the 4-2-3-1 system to roam all over the field, to judge where he thought he could be most effective. And wherever he was , that is where the game took place – if he dropped deep, moved out to the flank or went to play at centre forward, he remained the fulcrum of the side.
It would have been fascinating to see him do it all once more during Botafogo’s Copa Libertadores campaign, the club’s first for 18 years. In the away leg of the qualifying round, how would he cope with the altitude of the Ecuadorian capital when Botafogo take on Deportivo Quito? Providing the club get through that one, the next test is at home to San Lorenzo, the reigning champions of Argentina. Before receiving the call from Milan, Seedorf must surely have been imagining these games, looking forward to the occasion and contemplating the best way to win. Another six months and he could have retired having exhausted the possibilities of his playing career. But one door has opened and so another has shut – only time will tell which one was the entrance to the best garden in town.
But it was fun while it lasted. And if Seedorf enjoyed himself playing for Botafogo, I certainly enjoyed myself watching him. Of his 81 games for the club, I was in the stadium for 23 of them – frequently surrounded by empty spaces.
With one exception (a 20,826 crowd at home to Bahia), the only times I saw him watched by more than 20,000 people were local derbies – especially those against Flamengo, who supplied most of the supporters.
I was in London for the Olympics when he made his debut, to a packed stadium. A couple of weeks later when I returned there were just 3,550 there for the visit of Palmeiras. In all of his first team career Seedorf had never played in front of such tiny crowds.
He has seen, then, just how much Brazilian football is operating below its potential. And, in characteristic style, he was there at the forefront of the battle to improve things. He was a prime figure in the Bom Senso movement, and last December at Rio’s annual conference of coaches made the thoroughly sensible proposal that the year should start in February with the Brazilian Championship.
This is the voice of authority that the local scene has now lost, and which will be missed almost as much as his appearances on the pitch. It was an honour to have Clarence Seedorf among us for eighteen months, and I wish him success as he walks through the door in the wall and comes out the other side in Milan. But a large part of me wishes that door had not appeared for another six months.