The global game – the foreign influence on Dutch football

When foreigners in the Netherlands unpack their things and take up residence, they often bring with them a piece of their own home countries which is not necessarily nestled in their suitcases or moving boxes.  Expats, immigrants and otherwise visitors in this country who are fans of football generally bring their favorite team within their hearts and minds.   Certainly, no one is making the case for disavowing first loves, but for those of you who are tempted by the thought of second love in your second country, you’ll find that the Dutch football competition is seasoned by influences from around the world.  You may very well find fellow countrymen playing football here – some 50 countries are represented on the rosters of the 18 clubs in the top Dutch professional league: the Eredivisie.  In the current season, some 45% of the 490 contracted players are nationals of a country other than the Netherlands.  From Albania to the United States (Countries beginning with letters V-Z are currently unrepresented), footballers from around the world are having an influence on the Dutch competition.

The Eredivisie became fully professional in 1954 and three years later, the South African Steve Mokone became the first foreigner to play professional footy in the low countries when he signed with Heracles Almelo.  Over the years, players and trainers from every corner of the earth have come to this country – some for brief periods – others for a lifetime to ply their trade on the pitches of Dutch professional soccer clubs.   The contribution of these football imports is, like just about any other competition in this truly global game, significant.  Each team in the Eredivisie has a host of foreign players under contract but to look at true influence it is interesting to use statistics that look at the actual number of foreigners deployed on the pitch.  Under this filter, Arnhem’s Vitesse would take the chocolates as the club with the highest degree of foreign influence.  Add to that fact that both the head coach and technical director of the club are German and the prize clearly heads to the club in Gelderland whose recent success may be testament to the theory that globalization of the ‘Beautiful Game’ tends to be beneficial.

Vitesse is by no means the only club to draw on the neighbors to the East.  In addition to Arnhem’s Thomas Letsch, both PSV Eindhoven and Heracles Almelo feature German head coaches.  PSV’s Roger Schmidt may be the most visible of the lot, having garnered attention for open battles with referees and one of his own star players, but the coach of Red Bull Salzburg fame is still looking as a good bet to bring his side home in a second place finish.

Holders Ajax Amsterdam are looking to cruise to a defense of their league title and that is no small part due to the skills of the working visa players in their employ.  Perhaps their best-known import and by most measures the best of breed at this moment is the Serbian left winger, Dusan Tadic.  Tadic came to Ajax from Southampton in 2018 having already made his mark in both Twente and Groningen.

‘Circular’ players such as Tadic who come to this country and circulate in and out as well as through the Eredivisie are not all that uncommon.  Some of the best examples are the Scandinavians Jari Litmanen and Lasse Schöne.  Litmanen, from Finland, had stops in Amsterdam on both the dawn as well as the twilight of his successful footballing career, first playing for Ajax in 1992 before departing for Barcelona and Liverpool – returning in 2002 before heading back to finish out his playing tenure in Scandinavia.  For the Dane Lasse Schöne, the circle may be complete with his return to Heerenveen from Italy’s Genoa.  Schöne had success after his first foray with Heerenveen’s Blue and White Army at Ajax.  If he has returned to the Netherlands for good, his Dutch wife would most certainly approve.

Perhaps no better example of a circular career for a foreign national in the Eredivisie is Željko Petrović.  The Montenegrin first came to the Netherlands in 1992 to play for FC Den Bosch.  Having also played for Eindhoven’s PSV and RKC Waalwijk, Petro began a career in coaching, first as an assistant at Rotterdam’s Feyenoord. After nearly two decades both in the Netherlands and abroad, he was asked to return to Feyenoord to take up a spot on the bench next to the ‘Little General’ Dick Advocaat.  When Willem II found themselves ebbing further and further toward the depths of relegation, the Tilburg side called on Petrović to replace Adrie Koster.  Under their new trainer, the ‘Tricolores’ have pulled themselves up and enter the final phase of the season just about the cut.  Time will tell but for now it seems that Willem II have demonstrated that foreign influence on the Dutch competition can be a very positive one indeed!

The Dutch Eredivisie is often the steppingstone for even greener pastures.  Both promising players from smaller competitions as well as overlooked players from larger ones come to the Netherlands to hone their skills and log valuable playing time.  In the latter category would be both Maduka Okoye from Rotterdam’s Sparta and Georgios Giakoumakis from VVV-Venlo.  Okoye, a Nigerian keeper who was languishing at Fortuna Dusseldorf, has had himself a breakout year and is on the radar of number of potential destinations, not the least of which is a team whose goals need tending in Amsterdam’s Johan Cruyff ArenA.   Giakoumakis, who himself had become a fixture on the bench of AEK Athens and was toiling in the obscurity of Poland’s PKO Ekstraklasa, was brought into Venlo by VVV’s Technical Director, Stan Valckx.  Valckx had a hunch about the young Greek striker and was he ever right.  ‘Giako’ will end up the league’s top scorer by a fair distance.  For the cellar dwellers, his influence will be felt largely on the Venlo balance sheet – a welcome plus after a very lean year.

Written by John Mahnen