After a season during which he was little-used by AC Milan boss Massimiliano Allegri, Clarence Seedorf made the move to Brazil in search of regular football. A player used to averaging nearly 50 games a year, the Dutch midfielder seized a chance to demonstrate his undoubted quality.

Opting to sign on the dotted line for Botafogo, where the 36-year-old would be expected to play a leadership role in a youthful squad, iconic status was assured almost from the get-go. Indeed, the former Netherlands international was given a veritable heroes’ welcome at the airport by fans bearing a giant flag emblazoned with his image.

Fortunately, settling in has not been a problem, with Seedorf already able to speak and understand Portuguese thanks to four years spent rooming at Real Madrid with Seleção legend Roberto Carlos. “I never knew anyone who spent so much time on the phone,” said Seedorf, with a chuckle.

Nor was Rio de Janeiro, where he has been coming on holiday for several years, new to him and his family. He even already had a taste for that most simple and typical of Brazilian dishes, arroz com feijão (rice and beans), which he eats “every day. You can’t get away from it.” 

Equally uncomplicated and flavourful is the kind of football Botafogo have been playing since the arrival of the four-time UEFA Champions League winner. O Glorioso won the Rio state championship and, after 16 rounds, are currently vying for pole position in the Brasileiro, with much of the credit going to the positive influence Seedorf has had on the team.

More than comfortable with his role as midfield commander-in-chief, the Dutchman gave his insight on his fine start on Brazilian soil. A lot of people say that you’re ‘the most Brazilian’ of all the foreign players plying their trade in Brazil. Do you feel a bit Brazilian too?
Clarence Seedorf: 
Of course it’s a real compliment [for people to say that] and, yes, I do feel a bit Brazilian. The facts prove that the very best players come from here, while there can’t be many places in the world where you go out on the street and see so many people wearing their clubs’ shirts. Whoever the person and whatever their social situation, they’re proud to wear their club’s colours. In Suriname [where Seedorf was born], people really follow the Brazilian national team, and the Dutch one too. When I was watching the 1986 World Cup with my dad, he had to take me outside and calm me down after Brazil lost to France. I was crying with anger, because it was Zico’s last tournament. For me, he was what football was all about. 

There's much more freedom to switch positions or take people on. In Brazil, because of the level of individual quality, coaches give their players that freedom.

Seedorf on football in Brazil

Is Brazilian football really that different from the European game?
The difference is the discipline, the level of tactical application. There’s much more discipline in Europe than here, while here’s there’s much more raw talent – more individual quality. Not that I’m saying over there [in Europe] they don’t have quality or that here they’re not tactical. That’s on the pitch, but off the pitch things are even more different. When you live and play in Europe you won’t spend more than four hours travelling to games, and that's in the Champions League. When you play domestically you probably won’t spend more than an hour and a half travelling. The travelling here is longer. From Porto Alegre to Bahia it’s four-and-a-half hours. The logistical side of things is really tough. Even the difference in climate between the north and south of the country has an impact. These are the biggest challenges when it comes to adapting [to Brazilian football].

Is that European discipline a ‘built-in’ quality or are coaches over there more demanding?
It’s an organisational thing. A Seleção are just as tactically aware as anyone else, otherwise they wouldn’t be so successful – that’s what international football is like. It’s not just European football that’s disciplined, but there’s no doubt it’s part of the culture over there. Player development is a bit more rigid. Here, in South America, it’s a bit freer. When a country goes through hardship, where there are people in crisis situations, it can lead to more creativity. Brazil are disciplined with a South American flavour. Everybody has to defend the same way. Some might defend higher and others deeper, but they have to be compact – that’s the key word for everybody. It’s when teams attack that you’ll notice a difference when it comes to tactical application. 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. 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. 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.

What is it that’s made Botafogo so successful?
(Laughs) Successful?

You’ve won the Rio state championship, you’re up challenging at the top of the Brasileiro…
[It’s down to] hard work and more hard work. This is a group of players that are really keen to progress – and fast. The coach is doing a marvellous job too. We’ve got quality and we’ve got lots of youngsters, but it’s the young lads that are proving the difference for us because of the progression they’re making. It’s not something you see very often, so many players evolving so quickly. Normally, in a squad you can make changes and still send out a strong XI, but we know we haven’t got a squad like the ones Corinthians, Gremio and Inter[nacional] have. That’s why the young lads we’ve got who are playing more often have to progress very quickly. We don’t have the squad to be making changes all the time.

We reckon this is the year we need to seize our chance. You never know what’ll happen next year. Look at Fluminense: last year they were flying, this year they’re struggling. This is particularly true in Brazil, where I’ve already learned there’s not much to choose between teams! We’re making the most of our moment and trying to build on it every day. This is a group that wants to help itself and play positive football, getting the ball down, trying to create moves. We make a lot of goalscoring chances in every game.

As one of the team’s leaders, you’re partly responsible for the progression made by the club’s young players. What’s your role been in that process?
From the outside you might just see the 90 minutes, but there are a lot of minutes that have gone before that, chatting with them, asking them questions. When you ask a question to a younger player, any player in fact, you make them start to think. Am I going to start telling them everything that they have to do? On the pitch I might because things are different out there but, off the pitch, your approach has to be one that makes them grow [in stature]. And I can still grow too, like everybody else. I also had to make a lot of progress in a short space of time and it wasn’t easy. Away from the pitch, it’s about plenty of communication to make sure people understand certain things, so that they’re aware of how they’re developing.

Look out for the second part of this interview tomorrow, with Seedorf going into details on how he guides young players and speaking about his future coaching ambitions.