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Davids: Dutch can go all the way

Edgar Davids is impressively relaxed, all things considered. Clad in jeans and a close-fitting T-shirt, he arrives for our interview and begins to laugh. "At last!" he jokes, having been reluctant to meet with after returning to Ajax at the start of 2007.

The man famously tagged 'the Pitbull' by Luis van Gaal is not always the most accommodating individual, yet he is relentlessly honest. And after leaving the club closest to his heart with a UEFA Cup spot wrapped up but nothing in the way of trophies, the 35-year-old finally agreed to meet up.

His moody temperament is well-known and he is capable of clamming up before launching enthusiastically into a match summary in the next instant, but on this occasion the UEFA Champions League winner with Ajax in 1995 was happy to meet every question head-on. Edgar, will you still be a professional footballer next season?
Edgar Davids: Maybe.

What were you expecting when you returned to the Netherlands?
I wanted to win the title. And I also wanted to work with Henk Ten Cate, who was coach at the time (before leaving for Chelsea). After 11 years abroad, I had ambitions but unfortunately we had to face up to a number of injuries and players leaving, which was a real handicap for the team. We lacked that little something that makes all the difference. We had lots of young players and that was noticeable in the big matches.

Has the Eredivisie changed much since you moved abroad in 1996?
Of course. Two things really struck me: the first was the modernity of the stadiums. They were nothing like what I'd known before, especially the [Amsterdam] Arena. The second thing was that it's a much more balanced league now, with a stronger level of competition. Nowadays, no one team can completely dominate the championship.

Do you like your Pitbull nickname?
No, I don't like it. But, at the start, when it was given to me by one of my first coaches, it was a positive thing. He called me that because I never let an opponent get away. I was always glued to him.

You played in the English Premier League, which is now considered the strongest championship in the world. What do you recall about your time in England?
It's a very difficult championship where there are no easy teams. Everyone can beat everyone, and each club has the means to field a competitive lineup. When you play an away game, you have to go into it with the mindset of a warrior. Playing [Tottenham Hotspur] at their own ground, for example, is far from straightforward. The same goes for Wigan [Athletic] as well, even though they're by no means a big club.

You play in a position that has changed a lot in the last decade, and you yourself have been handed different roles depending on a given team's needs. What do you make of this evolution?
It's been logical. You don't find too many defensive midfielders of the old school like [Claude] Makelele anymore. He's the best in his position, just in front of the defence. His style is quite classical but it still works well. I started in a 4-3-3 formation at Ajax, playing in left midfield. There, you need to be just as involved defensively as you are going forward. You attack and you defend and that allows you to be a complete player. [Paul] Scholes and [Steven] Gerrard started off in the same position and you can see that whenever they play. They've got that within them, that ability to commence an attack as opposed to simply defending and passing the ball as soon as they get it back. Like myself, they are players who are capable of doing anything on a pitch.

Let's talk a little about UEFA EURO 2008. Even though the Netherlands traditionally prefer not to be cast as favourites, their public declarations and the atmosphere currently surrounding the team suggest a certain confidence and serenity. Do you think they can triumph after 20 years without a trophy?
If they get past the group stage (interview took place before the Netherlands booked their place in quarter-finals with 4-1 defeat of France on Friday) they'll go all the way. I'm sure of it. The intrinsic quality of this team is exceptional and you can't get harder than having France and Italy in your pool. The hard part would be behind them. Able to relax mentally, this team would be free of pressure and they can beat anyone in a one-off game. The squad have learnt the lessons of the last World Cup, and they've used that to go forward.

*Your friend Boudewjin Zenden explained to us that the country's various quarter and semi-final defeats since 1988 have been largely due to fans demanding eye-catching football at every tournament. Do you agree with him? * We've lost three times on penalties: in the quarter-finals of EURO 96, in the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup and at home against Italy during EURO 2000. We could have won those matches and the difference came down to nothing. Penalties are a lottery and you can't judge anything based on that.

You were part of an outstanding generation that also featured Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Phillip Cocu, the De Boer brothers and Edwin van der Sar. Do you think it can be problematic to have so many big names in the same team?
When you have too many stars, you have too many egos to manage and it's difficult. In 1998, we had players who were based at the biggest clubs in Europe, like Barcelona, Milan and Manchester United. That's not the case with this current team, so as far as I can tell the problem is less apparent.

The current side still has Ruud van Nistelrooij, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Wesley Sneijder, of course.
I'd agree about Ruud. But Huntelaar has won nothing in Europe and Sneijder has only been at Real Madrid for one season. That's not enough. In 1998, we only had guys who'd already had big international careers. There's no comparison. The players in the present generation are still young; they're hungry and that could be a bonus.

You have not been called up by the national side for three years. Do you have any regrets?
I cherished every moment with the national team - the good ones and the bad ones because you learn from your mistakes. The past can influence the future. When you finish one chapter, you open another which will be influenced by what you've just lived through.

Do you still have goals?
Only to carry on enjoying myself, whether it's on the pitch or not. But I'm still hungry for titles. I'm not satisfied yet - I want more.

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