De Boer war

With player power becoming a bigger issue in football, Rutger Slagter explains how the Dutch FA's ruling kept a lid on a potentially huge can of worms, for now

At the end of July, a Dutch FA tribunal presided over the most important case since the Bosman ruling. If the De Boer brothers Frank and Ronald won the right to tear up their contract with Ajax, players around Europe would be able to follow suit. Football in general would be in danger.

“A contract is a contract, it would be ridiculous if they were allowed to leave,” said Louis van Gaal last April, when he was still Ajax coach. His successor Morten Olsen was also quite clear, “discontented players are useless,” he said just six months ago. The De Boers redrafted their contracts with Ajax in March 1997 and signed until 2004. Now they have decided that they have seen enough of the club they joined as youngsters and want to force their way out in order to join Barcelona.

The De Boers were seen as guardians of the Ajax philosophy. A new squad was built around them after many of the golden team of 1995 had left. Ajax even put an extra clause in the contracts requiring the De Boers not to ask for a transfer before 2001, even in the case of a better offer from abroad. This apparently uncommon stipulation undercut the twins’ attorney’s argument, put to a committee of the Dutch FA, that the brothers were seeking a move to improve their income.

Another argument used was that the twins would be playing a higher standard of football in Spain. But the relative standards have not dramatically changed since 1997 (and Holland were in the last four in the World Cup, Spain were not). Besides, when Frank and Ronald signed, in full possession of their faculties, there was also foreign interest and therefore the prospect of improved pay and play.

The only things that seem to have changed over the last year are the personal wishes of the De Boers. Their attorney argued that Morten Olsen’s methods were boring, monotonous and not creative enough. Besides, he claimed, the brothers did not want Olsen as their coach in the first place. Ajax, on the other hand, said Frank and Ronald were not even consulted about such matters.

It seems the brothers only raised these issues in order to force a ‘breach of faith’. The FA committee did not buy it, arguing that the players themselves created the breach and that it was no basis for dissolving the bilateral contract. The disagreements over what had happened and who said what continued. The De Boers have claimed for weeks that there was an understanding that Ronald could be transferred if Frank was prepared to serve his time. Ajax disagreed there was any such gentleman’s agreement.

The verdict of the committee did not end the deadlock between club and employees. It was decided that the twins should play for Ajax until 2004, and should not try to raise the issue legally again until 2001, which the brothers refused to accept. A four-hour conversation with the Ajax board did not bring a solution either. The only decisions made were that further talks will follow and that both parties would not comment further

If these negotiations fail and the players still will not perform, Ajax can do two things. They could fire them, but this will not happen because Ajax would then still have to pay off their salaries and the De Boers could play for another club.

The second option is better – not paying them anything. If they don’t turn up to play, they will not get paid and they cannot play for another club. Only if Frank and Ronald say they are ill can they refuse to play and collect a paycheck. If a doctor agrees they are mentally incapable of playing for Ajax, they should not have to. This possibility seems unlikely.

Olsen has not repeated his remark about discontented players of six months ago when he could not have foreseen this mess. “I have no comment on the case, but it does worry me.” This year, nine Dutchmen will be employed by Barcelona. If it is up to Van Gaal, two more will follow. “Frank is a priority but his brother is just as welcome,” the Barcelona coach said, and continued, “If they are free to go I will be there.”

From WSC 139 September 1998. What was happening this month