We don’t talk any more

Simon Kuper and Rutger Slagter explain why the upheaval in the Dutch squad following Euro '96 may not be quite what it seemed

“Kabel” is the new word in Dutch football. The kabel (cabal in English) people are talking about has four members, all of them black Dutchmen: Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Michael Reiziger. Winston Bogarde also wants to be in the kabel, but he can’t because he’s too old, not good enough at football, and wears too much jewellry.

The moment people first noticed the kabel, of course, was the day during Euro ’96 that Davids – dropped by coach Guus Hiddink for the game against Switzerland – spoke the unforgettable words: “Hiddink should stop sticking his head up other players’ arses.” What Davids was trying to say was that Hiddink had consulted only his two old, white cronies, Ronald de Boer and Danny Blind, before picking the team and leaving Davids out. It mattered also that Seedorf was taken off against Switzerland in the 26th minute after receiving a yellow card, and that Kluivert was left on the bench because Hiddink considered him unfit.

Davids is a pretty mediocre communicator. But his mate Seedorf, 20 years old going on 50, is the most prolific speechmaker since Lloyd George, and he spoke. It turned out that the kabel had been pretty mad for quite some time. For a start, they feel that although they are brilliant players Hiddink doesn’t ask their advice much. They tend to feel that this is perhaps more because they are young than because they are black. “I don’t want to be seen as a youth player, but as a true international,” says Kluivert.

As with every Dutch row, money comes into it. Someone on the side of the kabel has leaked to the Dutch weekly Voetbal International the salaries of some of the Ajax side that won the Champions League in 1995. They were: Ronald and Frank de Boer – £200,000 each; Danny Blind – almost as much; Davids – £40,000; Seedorf and Kluivert – £32,000; Reiziger – about £26,000.

Thanks to Champions League bonuses the kabel managed to stay out of the soup kitchens, but still they were angry. Also, in the run-up to Euro ’96, Blind managed to make himself main commercial negotiator for the players – and main commercial negotiator is perhaps the key role in any Dutch football team, a bit like being Entertainments Officer in the England team. Seedorf was particularly upset.

So how much does race have to do with this? Well, says Seedorf, it’s a matter of culture. As Reiziger says: “The four of us form a separate group. We talk easily with each other, because we think the same way, come from the same culture, and make the same jokes.” They are also all basketball mad. When Davids was dropped, they all felt bound to defend him, even though Reiziger, Kluivert and Seedorf all disapproved of his language.

None of them suggest that Hiddink, De Boer or Blind are consciously racist. Rather, they think their coach is insensitive. They think he sees them as talented young black kids from a rap culture, and not as team leaders. Clearly Hiddink underestimated their desire for respect.

And what was Hiddink thinking? Like all Dutch coaches, he knows he has to listen to players. But this way is only to talk to a couple of veterans, the “main men”. The problem is that almost the entire Dutch team comes from Ajax, where the coach, Louis van Gaal, makes everybody talk. Van Gaal keeps difficult characters like Davids and Bogarde quiet, as it were, by listening to them. As Ronald de Boer –very upset at being embroiled in all this – says: “Seedorf and Davids have developed a lot more and experienced a lot more than I had at that age. You have to take them seriously and give them a say.”

At bottom it comes down to the question: how good are Seedorf and Davids? They reckon that they are stars. Johan Cruyff, the original Dutch feudster, coined the rule that if you are going to be difficult you have to play better than everyone else. Seedorf and Davids forgot that rule at Euro ’96.

So what now? It is pretty unlikely that this will develop into a running feud that tears the Dutch team apart. The reason is that the white players aren’t really interested. Blind and De Boer both claim they advised Hiddink to play Davids against Switzerland. Blind, 35 now, may not be forever for this team. And the other white players all say it’s none of their business. Dennis Bergkamp and Edwin van der Sar are members of that rare breed, Dutch footballers who hate arguments. Richard Witschge is an egomaniac, so he loves arguments, but only ones that involve him. The De Boer twins are too short on charisma to have many arguments. Jordi comes from Spain, where everyone loves each other.

The kabel gets along fairly well with all these inoffensive blokes. But they are not mates with them. Holland lacked the closeness of the England team in Euro ’96. Seedorf takes as his model the French team, which, he says, has at its centre a kabel of about four players who are very close. He claims that the rest of the team gains strength from this. The French kabel, one suspects, consists of Marcel Desailly, Christian Karembeu, Bernard Lama and Patrice Loko.

The last, fascinating question is why the Dutch team has never split on racial lines before. After all, Surinamese Dutchmen have been big in the side since at least September 1981, when Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard made their debuts in the same friendly against Switzerland.

The reason is that the rows within the team for most of the modern period have been Gullit against the rest. Gullit always wanted to be the main man, the guy who talks tactics with the manager. His public statements about the nature of human life irritated the more down-to-earth Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, who privately called him “Guru”. Gullit and Rijkaard have hung around together since primary school, and their fathers were friends before them, but the players apparently also clashed over extremely private marital issues. So they never formed a kabel. And other Surinamese internationals, like Aron Winter and Gerald Vanenburg, never had much status within the national team. Unlike Seedorf, Davids, Kluivert and Reiziger.

From WSC 114 August 1996. What was happening this month