Seedorf: Never stop wanting to improve

In the first part of his interview with FIFA.com, Clarence Seedorf gave his insight on adapting to Brazilian football, and revealed how he swiftly became a key component and leader in a youthful Botafogo team. In the second part of our conversation, the Dutch maestro told us more about how he is able to exert a positive influence, particularly on O Fogão’s youngsters.

FIFA.com: What are your chats with Botafogo’s younger players usually about?
Clarence Seedorf: Positioning out on the field, for example. When we’re playing, I really shape my body to receive the ball – even before it gets to me. And the other players do the same, because nobody can see everything that’s happening out on the pitch. Doria, for example, has made incredible progress. He’s now our player who brings the ball out from deep, with confidence, and that’s the result of everyone’s hard work. I spoke to him a lot about ‘preparing the ball’. As he’s a left-footer, if the ball ends up nearly in front of his right foot, he’s not going to be able to play it left – it’s almost impossible. But, if the ball’s to the left of his left foot, he can play it left or, with a step to one side, he can switch the play too – so the opposition won’t know what he’s going to do.

And we’ve got to communicate too because if I’m on his side I can receive the ball from him. [By changing the ball position] he gives himself and his team-mates more options, and makes life harder for the opposition. If he’s got the ball on his right, they’ll know that he can only go right or backwards, so there’s more pressure. These are small details that he didn’t use to do, but which often meant he had to play the ball backwards, meaning we lost a lot of attacking opportunities. I’m talking about eight or nine months ago. And he started to do these little things because he’s got a very good touch, he passes the ball well and he’s got good acceleration. Now I’m starting to get into other little details he can work on, the process never stops. 

When do these exchanges generally take place?
In the dressing room, when we’re in the gym, on away trips, after training. It’s an everyday thing. For me, the work never stops, we can always improve can’t we? You need to never stop wanting to improve. Even when I was back at Milan, part of a really great Milan side, we’d always be on each other’s backs every day about how we could improve. Once you stop wanting to improve, you start to slide. And if you want to keep winning, if you want to stay at the top, that’s not something you can afford to do. It’s the way it goes in the marketplace, in the world and in life. If you stop, other people overtake you.

How far can you keep improving?
There’s no limit. I’m taking penalties too now. Throughout my whole career, during the season at least, I never took penalties – just in final tournaments and things like that. It’s a new thing for me being the team’s first-choice kick-taker. I can improve my positioning too. I’m now playing in my favourite position, the one where I feel I’m best able to express all my qualities, but I’ve only ever played here for two seasons in my whole career. The rest I played as a midfielder, but deeper. Sometimes I was played on the right or on the left and because I could play anywhere, coaches would move me around. You do as you’re told because at the end of the day it’s the team that counts, and I managed to make a significant contribution. 

My objective at the moment is to give it my all to finish my career in style, on a high. I’ve never believed in finishing at small teams.
Clarence Seedorf

Are you enjoying yourself more now you’re playing closer to the opposition goal or does it make no difference to you?
For me, winning isn’t just about lifting the cup, the trophy – it’s about giving your maximum, on and off the pitch. If a guy has five good games and then starts to go out, drink, sleep late, live the wrong kind of lifestyle, then his performances will always suffer. And then, come the end of the year, if you’ve not been successful you’d always wonder if you did everything you could to make it happen. That’s not a feeling you can live with. For me, that’s what winning is about. Winning is about giving everything you’ve got inside, individually and as a group, to win the trophy. That’s the spirit you all need to have. Winning is a result of all the ingredients coming together at the same time, as well as getting a bit of luck too. At the very least, you have to compete. Yes, being competitive is your duty. Whether you win or not doesn’t just depend on you but if you do everything in your power, if you’ve got a winning mentality, then you can’t do any more than that.

How do you feel about being called a ‘father figure’ by 19-year-old Botafogo forward Vitinho in an interview?
(Laughs) He’s funny, I just have to laugh about it. But I’m old enough to be the dad of several of the lads in the squad. It’s strange, because to me it still feels like yesterday that I was in their position, a young lad of 16, starting out [Editor’s note: Seedorf made his Ajax first-team debut at just 16 in 1992]. It’s really cool, we all get on really well here. Vitinho is in the process of establishing himself as a player and his talent isn’t in question. However, there’s a culture here of giving interviews all the time, even during the half-time break, and he needs to be protected – particularly mentally – so he can continue to improve as a player. His concentration, his focus needs to be maintained.

For any player it can be hard in certain games to go in at half-time and then come back out and play just as well, with the same level of attention and focus. Imagine then, on top of that, you’re asked to start talking about something else entirely. There’s a time and a place for this, and that [when Seedorf cut short an interview Vitinho was giving at half-time during a game] wasn’t it. We need to be able to handle that kind of situation better. Why? Because even though we were leading, it was a tough game and it was by no means over. It was important to stay focused right to the end. My intervention came from someone who knows just how hard it is for a player – any player, experienced or not – to stay focused during the interval. As soon as you start giving interviews, you’re detaching yourself from the group mentality, which is what really matters.

These things happen periodically, but it won’t happen again because everyone’s learned from it. He still gives interviews now, but with a different approach, being aware that he can’t lose his focus. This squad learns fast: once they’ve moved forward, they don’t let themselves slip back. That’s a real bonus for us – having this kind of chemistry is really fortunate. For example, when I joined Real Madrid, they’d not won the title for seven years. Even though they bought 14 players, eight or nine of them starters, we really flew that year. Some of that has to be down to luck, doesn’t it? Of course we had Fabio Capello as coach, which was important, but if you don’t have chemistry between the players it could end up taking longer for a team to evolve and really take off.

Your answers always seem focused on progress, development and the squad as a whole. Does your future lie in coaching?
Definitely. The way I speak is the way I’ve always felt throughout my career. I’d never have won anything if I hadn’t had all those ingredients. Every season that didn’t go well was because one of those things was missing. Even when we didn’t win, more often than not we finished second, and you can’t win all the time, can you? But we never stopped competing, right through to the end of the season. I’ve already got my UEFA A coaching licence: I started as soon as the idea occurred to me. I went to work with young players over at Nova Iguacu and Boavista and I enjoyed it. I’d always thought about being a coach, but that sped things up. Now I’m doing the final part of my UEFA Pro licence. For the practical part, I’m coaching the 17-year-olds over at Boavista, while for the theory part I’m doing the same homework that the coaches back in the Netherlands are doing.

When will you begin this new phase of your career?
Ah, I don’t know. My objective at the moment is to give it my all to finish my career in style, on a high. I’ve never believed in finishing at small teams, dropping to the fifth division, things like that – I don’t think I’d be able to handle it. Brazil has the best football of any country outside of Europe, and I wanted to keep on playing at a high level. I knew that it’d be different and difficult, but I needed a challenge. In my last year at Milan, [coach Massimiliano] Allegri didn’t use me that much. He’d only play me in the bigger games, but because I’d been on the bench for the previous few games I’d have lost my match sharpness – the sharpness I’ve had all my career. I’d played an average of 48 games a year and, almost overnight, I started playing half that number, which complicated things. It makes things hard for your body, hard to get your rhythm going. I’m a player who needs games and the way he behaved towards me didn’t help either. I didn’t want to stay any longer because I wanted to play. I could have stayed, but I wanted a big challenge that would bring back my motivation again. The motivation that would, after 20 years in the game, make me get up in the mornings, train well and do all those things that I’m doing now to be part of a squad with big ambitions.

And, by the way you’re talking, you seem very happy here too. Am I right?
(Smiles) Ah, I always talk like this: you have to really live life wherever you are. You can’t think too far forward or too far back: once you’ve made your choice you need to live it, with intensity. Tomorrow or maybe in a year’s time things might change, I might be moving on, who knows? So I’ve got to live life.