Football Dutch legend assesses the clash between two of his former clubs
With two of his former clubs in Ajax and Real Madrid set to do battle in the Champions League, Clarence Seedorf believes Los Blancos has a special relationship with the competition.
As a winner of the Champions League with both clubs, the legendary midfielder will have split allegiances, as he made clear in an exclusive interview with MARCA.
Two of your former teams, Ajax and Real Madrid, will meet in the Champions League, who do you believe is the favourite?
“Real Madrid is the favourite, because they are the defending champions and they have significant experience in the Champions League. Now this doesn’t mean that they will 100% win, but Real Madrid in the Champions League are always special.”
You have won the Champions League with both teams, but what are you best memories of the 1995 and 1998 titles?
“When I lifted my first Champions League as a 19-year-old it was amazing. After the match, I was with my idol from when I was little, Frank Rijkaard, doing interviews with him as he was finishing his career and I was just starting mine. Then there were all the celebrations, with millions of people waiting for us back in Amsterdam. I didn’t sleep for the whole week. The Champions League with Real Madrid was also incredible, we were a group of hungry players who had incredible motivation. After 32 years we brought the Champions League back to Madrid.”
In Spain Ajax are known for De Jong and De Ligt, but surely the Dutch team are more than that?
“Ziyech, Dolberg, Tadic and Huntelaar are all important too. Real Madrid will face a team that hasn’t reached the knockout stage for many years. Ajax believe they can beat Madrid, also because Real have been winning for so many years there could be a lack of motivation on their part.”
When you won the seventh in 1998, Los Blancos weren’t having a good league season either, do you see this team capable of winning a fourth successive title?
“Everything is possible. It will be very difficult, but yes, Real Madrid can always do it.”
Since 1998 Real Madrid have won seven Champions League, but everything started in Amsterdam against Zinedine Zidane’s Juventus, how proud are you to be a part of starting that?
“I’m proud and honoured to have played such an important role for Real Madrid, a moment which represented the turning point for the return of the club in Europe after so many years without success. It’s especially important when you look at what happened next with so many victories and trophies. It’s a special feeling and a very rewarding one. The club has strengthened a lot in those years since I was there, it has become a giant off the pitch too, and I’ve been very happy to see that growth.”
Why do you think it’s so difficult for the team to compete in Spain against Barcelona?
“After a season like last year, in which the team won the Champions League again, it’s not easy to find the right balance. Some improvements will probably become visible in the second half of the season, also Solari will have had more time to work with the players. There was a lot of pressure at the beginning, a moment of change always has consequences. However, the team is still very competitive.”
From the perspective of a coach, do you think that Real Madrid is a different team without Cristiano Ronaldo? Are they less competitive?
“Cristiano was considered a king in Madrid and he guaranteed goals for the team. If Cristiano was still in the team then Los Blancos would have more confidence in themselves, but I don’t believe the results would have been so different. It’s likely that the exit of Zidane has had a far greater impact because the way of working has changed. Whoever had replaced him would have needed to do a special job in order to have immediate success and overcome the inevitable initial difficulties.”
If you were forced to answer, who is better out of Cristiano or Messi?
“Both have dominated the world football scene over the last decade in their own way. Messi has his own footballing style whilst Ronaldo has a completely different one. Both are still decisive and are extraordinary champions.”
Who is your pick to win the 2018/19 Champions League?
“It’s a special season and it’s perhaps a little early to say who can win it. The team that doesn’t necessarily excel in the first half of the tournament could become devastating in the second half. Looking also at the experience of recent years, probably Liverpool could be one of the favourites. Despite not playing particularly well in the group phase, they are doing very well in the Premier League. Juventus could also reach the final, but there is a long list of teams they would have to beat. Atletico Madrid, PSG, Bayern, Barcelona and Manchester City… all of them could compete for the trophy.”
What do you think of Solari’s work so far?
“Solari has been fortunate to have met many of the players he now works with before, so I think he has the respect of the group. He’s a good person, although I don’t know him as a coach and the way he works. I think he’s doing what is needed, which is managing a group of young people and veterans. Solari has been there for such a short amount of time that it wouldn’t be fair to judge what he’s done so far. At the end of the season we’ll see how the team has improved.”
From the outside, how do you see the management of a problem as delicate as Isco?
“It’s always difficult to know exactly what is happening internally when looking from the outside. Isco is for sure a very important player and he’s one of the footballers I would put on the pitch if I had the chance to coach him. At the same time, all important players go through difficulty times and it’s the coach’s job to help the individual recover from either a physical or mental perspective. Solari isn’t crazy enough to leave out a player without having a good reason.”
You were one of the best midfielders of all time, but you never won the Ballon d’Or, is it a reflection of the importance of the position that Modric is the current holder?
“I haven’t had the luck or privilege of winning such an individual award, but Modric has proven himself to be a hugely important player in his teams both domestically and at the international level. He has been a consistently intelligent player, but it’s useless to make comparisons with previous eras. It was a different football with different players, but because of how today’s football is the prize was deserved. Congratulations to Modric, I hope he goes on to achieve other great things in his career.”
You played for several of the biggest clubs in the world, where was the pressure highest?
“I never felt pressure from outside, wherever I played. It was one of my strengths, I’ve always demanded a lot from myself so I didn’t pay attention to what others demanded of me. I have been very self-critical and have always transformed what others say into motivation. If I was to give a team, it was probably Real Madrid where there was the most pressure.”
After Ronaldo’s departure we are seeing a more balanced Real Madrid with other players sharing control, do you believe that to be the case?
“At Real Madrid every single player is important, but it’s the team which makes the difference. It’s thanks to how the whole team plays that an individual player is able to make his mark. If the right conditions created by the team don’t exist, then a single player will not make a difference. Even when Ronaldo was there, Los Blancos wasn’t just him on his own. Great teams don’t depend on just one player if they are serious about winning.”
You were linked with the Real Madrid job last summer, what happened?
“I consider Real Madrid my home and, to be honest, I would have accepted the job. There were contacts but the decision was made to go in a different direction. I’m young, so I hope to return in the future.”
How would you describe what coaching Real Madrid would mean to you?
“It would be like returning home. I already had a similar experience when I was AC Milan coach, so the feelings would be similar.”
Last season you coached Deportivo La Coruna, what was lacking which stopped you being successful?
“Time and goals. I arrived very late and despite significant improvements which everyone could see, we missed easy chances. These goals could have changed the direction of our story, but we didn’t have the little bit of luck required.”
Now, as Cameroon coach, what are your goals?
“My goal is to help Cameroon become a respected national team on the world stage. We’re going through a reconstruction process and the match against Brazil is November gave us important signs of progress that we’ve already made.”
You’ve left a good impression on people in Spain, do you hope to return one day?
“Yes, Spain is one of the best leagues in the world, so yes, I would be open to an opportunity if one arises in the future.”