For the last month, Clarence Seedorf has been keeping the keenest of eyes on the unfolding daily drama at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. The AC Milan midfielder has been working as a television pundit for the BBC during the tournament and we caught up with him for an exclusive interview just before he put his own questions to Naomi Campbell.
A FIFA World Cup semi-finalist at France 1998 and a UEFA Champions League winner with three different clubs, the Surinamese-born Ajax-academy product still retains hopes of representing the Oranje again in the future. He was not selected by Bert van Marwijk for South Africa 2010, but he boasts a privileged perspective on the Netherlands’ historic route through the tournament and spoke to FIFA.com with both candour and enthusiasm.
FIFA.com: Clarence, are you surprised that the Netherlands have reached the Final or did you think this could be their year?
Clarence Seedorf: Emotion has no place when you are analysing sport, so the question isn’t whether I’m surprised or not. The fact is that this team clearly had the ability to do something. From the very first day, I said that the Netherlands were serious outsiders, as I thought France were to a lesser extent. My favourites at the time were Spain, England and Brazil, but as the competition has gone on things have developed. Opinions too. For example, I liked Argentina a lot and, for me, Germany played the best football in the tournament.
What has been Bert van Marwijk's major achievement during this run?
He’s kept the same core of players without making lots of changes. He’s stuck with the same squad and the same system. All those things have made it possible to build a very strong identity, while the run of victories and games unbeaten have boosted confidence even more. When you win matches without playing your best football and you know that further forward you have four players who can score at any moment, it helps. This team believes in itself and knows how to make its own luck; that’s essential if you hope to win a major competition.
Was that what was missing at France 1998?
Yes, without doubt. That and consistent belief. The key elements for victory for any team are an ironclad mental strength and attitude. This Oranje side has all those elements. I can’t wait to see how the Final goes because there is also the issue of timing, which will be essential.
Can Van Marwijk’s success be explained by the fact that he faced less pressure due to being relatively unknown internationally compared to Louis van Gaal, Frank Rijkaard or Marco van Basten?
It can help when expectations are lower, but we saw at EURO 2008 that this team knows how to play football. For me, his major achievement has been to be pragmatic. He’s also surrounded himself well, with assistants who boast huge international experience.
Has that pragmatism distanced the Netherlands from their traditional, spectacular attacking style?
The flair and desire to play good technical football are still there. As I said before, luck is always a crucial factor, but this team knows how to turn luck in its favour. In 1998, we played the most attractive football at the World Cup but lost on penalties in the semi-final. If we replayed our match against Italy at EURO 2000 ten times, we’d win it ten times. In both those competitions, we played the way Dutch people expect, with the beautiful style you were talking about – but we failed to go all the way.
What will be the key on Sunday against a Spain team that you know very well?
I wouldn’t take it upon myself to tell them what to do. From the outside, it’s difficult to say: “They have to play like this or do that.” But I know that Spain always give their opponents two or three chances, especially when they lose the ball in midfield. I also think that [Arjen] Robben could create a lot of openings on his wing because [Joan] Capdevila isn’t ideally suited to defending against him, even if he’s a super defender. I’d really like to see Robben play very high up the pitch.
You have now missed the last three major international tournaments with the Netherlands. Do you still see yourself as having an international future?
Absolutely. I still dream of winning a title with my national team. For me, I wouldn’t have been out of place in this team, but the decision was made and I’ve always respected it. When I see that [Giovanni] van Bronckhorst is a starter at 36, that helps me keep dreaming.
At 34, you still have a fresh mental approach and impressive physical qualities. What is your secret?
I decided upon a process of personal development to constantly improve myself and I’ve stuck to it – to remain in peak condition both in my head and in my legs. I take care of myself and I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I respect my tiredness by sleeping when I have to. I love to train as well, honestly. I often stay on 30 minutes after a session to keep going on my own. Retaining your love for the game is essential if you want to conserve the same enthusiasm.
You mentioned a process that helps you always stay at your best. How does it work exactly?
I’d say that I consider myself a professional thief. I steal what I see other players do – it’s positive theft (laughs)! More seriously, it’s important to always be innovating, to constantly expand your arsenal and to renew yourself. This is a very mental sport: if your opponent cannot predict how you will play before you go out on the pitch, that’s already a huge advantage. That’s why you have to take inspiration from other players, especially the younger ones who come in and try new things.
Your 'Champions for Children' foundation is active in Africa, so coming here for a FIFA World Cup must have evoked a lot of emotions. After a month here, what has been your take on the experience?
I’d first like to thank FIFA for their level of organisation. It’s been fantastic and I’ve found out how vast it’s been. When you’re a player, you don’t see everything that goes on behind the scenes. I’d also like to thank the security personnel, the fans and the people of South Africa because the stadiums have been full and there haven’t been any incidents in or around the venues. The African hospitality has been great, so from the point of view of a fan it’s been a huge pleasure to have been here. As a specialist, on the other hand, I’ve been a bit disappointed by what I’ve seen on the pitch. We didn’t see much attractive football until the quarter-finals, and the main reason for that was the defensive tactics.