20, May 2019
Having shone on many of the top stages in world football as a player, Clarence Seedorf now stands before his biggest challenge to date as a coach.
After taking the reins at Cameroon in August 2018, he is now sizing up a trip to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Egypt 2019 with the Indomitable Lions – who will arrive as reigning champions.
But the road already hasn’t been a simple one. Absent from the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, Cameroon were anticipating hosting the continental tournament this June. However, after it was deemed necessary to postpone their hosting for two years in November, handing Egypt the reins, it meant Seedorf was left with one crucial game to secure their spot in the finals. A 3-0 triumph over Comoros secured it.
FIFA.com spoke with him on his first nine months at the helm, getting to know Africa and the improving fortunes of former club Ajax and the Dutch national team.
FIFA.com: Clarence, this is your first international coaching role so how do you reflect on your first nine months in charge?
Clarence Seedorf: It was definitely an electric ending to qualifying with all the changes at the last minute. We had to win against Comoros, but it also confirmed the work we’d done up until that moment had been really productive. Ending up with the same points as Morocco, who are one of the favourites to win the AFCON, with only two goals difference says a lot about how we performed and prepared for the other games.
The change of host put you in a uniquely challenging position. Did you need to go through a process of refocusing the team for that final game?
I told my players from day one that I wanted to be first in the group. They knew that every match was serious, every training session was serious and every day was a chance to be their best. It’s a mentality that we’ve been able to create over those months and the last two performances against Brazil and Comoros are an acknowledgement that this team had the right mentality and were ready both technically and tactically to perform.
Having been linked with the likes of the Real Madrid job, the Cameroon role presents something of a different direction. How have you taken to leading the African champions?
Obviously, it’s always an honour to be linked with teams like Real Madrid, but it was a great challenge to get this team ready in just a few days, when normally you’d have a whole pre-season with them, and was actually a very exciting process. Cameroon are historically one of the best teams in Africa and missing out on the finals in Russia was a big disappointment for them. As a result it’s been like starting all over again, rebuilding the team and rebuilding the respect on an international level, which I think we’ve achieved with some great performances.
With a whole host of AFCON front-runners keen to leave with gold, do you think Cameroon have what it takes to retain the title?
Cameroon always has it. We’re in good shape and things are positive but then we need to translate this into matches. No one is going to have an easy day playing against Cameroon in Egypt.
Having played and coached around the world, how have you taken to coaching in Africa?
Similarly to Brazil, there’s a lot of focus on the players, they mean so much to the people in the country. They’re really their idols, their role models and the country stops for the match. But football is a universal language and it comes down to the same things wherever you go.
You’ve taken in the likes of well-known football nations like Morocco and Cameroon, but also smaller ones such as Malawi and Comoros. How has it been discovering those new football cultures?
Besides the experiences of culture, I’m finally able to see Africa, feel Africa and live Africa. There are still lots of problems here but the potential, the talent and the energy is fantastic. It’s wonderful to be able to get into those countries and it’s a privilege to be able to travel around Africa and work there.
You’re doing all that alongside Patrick Kluivert, who you have a footballing connection going back 25 years with. How has that translated to the bench?
We’ve discovered that we’re a really strong duo. We understand each other, we complete each other, it really is the match we hoped it would be. It really is fantastic working with Patrick and we’re looking forward to maybe a lasting relationship and maybe we will be able to have an even bigger impact in Africa and then in Europe some time.
It was a relationship that started at Ajax, who enjoyed their greatest run in Europe since you both were at the club. How has it been seeing them rediscover that European pedigree?
It’s good for football that other clubs and new players are knocking on the door. Of course the DNA of the club and the history always counts: Liverpool, Ajax already have four and five Champions League medals. Ajax has a good mix of both young and experienced players; that combination enables the young players to perform. We had an Ajax side showing the Amsterdam flavour again and I love it.
And with this young talent feeding into the Dutch national team. How are you feeling about the side’s recent revival?
I think a lot has to do with the coaching in general: can you create the right conditions for the players to excel, can you build a cohesion that will translate into a match, can you keep the guys competitive but also still supportive of each other? I feel like these elements have been brought back by Ronald Koeman, who has been doing a great job. Everything seems to be fitting together and I hope this is a lasting movement with Ajax and the Dutch team. Let’s see what it holds for the coming years.
Was it a surprise that there was quite such a dip over the last few years, after finishing second and third at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups?
You need to have a plan and coaches who push you in a certain direction. I think that wasn’t the case a few years ago. Sometimes results can blind you and we didn’t really see the state of things. I think Louis van Gaal did an amazing job (in 2014) with a team that probably wasn’t expected to go all the way to where they went.
The team you featured in at France 1998 was a sensational side, with many of your fellow Ajax graduates alongside you. Do you look back on that tournament as a missed opportunity at all?
Until now, Dutch mentality has been more about playing well instead of winning. That’s something I have always criticised because it needs to be improved. One thing I like about this Ajax side is that, when they are in difficulty, they don’t try to keep looking nice. The ball can go straight out of the stadium or up front, so they can also be more practical.
Everyone wants to play attractive football but Italy have won four World Cups and Holland none, so where lies the truth? What is your choice in terms of the type of mentality you have? Obviously, identities shouldn’t be changed – you should play good football and look to perform within your philosophy, but your adversary won’t always let you perform the way you would like. What do you do then? That’s where potential growth lies for the Dutch.