On January 31, 2008, Middlesbrough signed Afonso Alves from Heerenveen. His transfer wasn’t just significant for Boro, it also changed the way we think about Dutch football and statistics.
I lived in Amsterdam almost a year before finally visiting the ArenA, home of Ajax, for an August 2015 fixture against Willem II.
The experience was a good one: 50,000 fans drinking Grolsch from plastic cups, cheap tickets courtesy of some not-quite-obstructive metal beams and a 3-0 victory against the Tilburg opposition.
But there’s one memory from that match that I can’t seem to forget, a fly in the ointment of what was otherwise a nice Saturday evening in Holland.
It’s about 8pm. Sitting in the plastic seat, leaning slightly to one side to avoid the beams, I hear a song coming from higher up the stand, a chant from a single determined voice that breaks every now and again, sounding naked and fragile in this quiet section of restricted-view ticket holders.
It’s the ‘Toure’ song. You know, the one where you say the names of Yaya and Kolo Toure over and over to the tune of ‘No Limit’ by 2 Unlimited.
Except come the seventh ‘Yaya’, there’s no ‘Toure’ resolution. The rhythmic symmetry between forename and surname is lost, and instead — no doubt about it — I’m hearing ‘Sanogo’.
It’s a song about Yaya Sanogo. Yaya, Yaya Yaya, Yaya Yaya, Yaya Yaya Sanogo.
What’s worse, the singing fan — who also has a song about Johnny Heitinga to the tune of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ — isn’t just an Arsenal fan who’s wandered off from his Amsterdamage tour to see what Willem II are like these days: Yaya Sanogo is actually sitting on the bench for Ajax, the Ajax of Bergkamp, Blind, De Boer (x2), Cruyff, Ibrahimovic, Kluivert, Litmanen, Overmars, Rijkaard, van der Sar, Seedorf, Sneijder, Stam and Van der Vaart.
The weirdest thing? I’m not even that surprised.
Why? Well, on January 31, 2008, Middlesbrough signed Afonso Alves for £12.5million. The Brazilian striker had just netted 45 goals in 39 games for Eredivisie side Heerenveen, and — to all but the most sceptical — looked a good fit for Boro.
For context, other signings that deadline day included Gilberto to Spurs, Felipe Caicedo to Manchester City and 36-year-old Jari Litmanen (forebear of Sanogo) to Fulham. Among that lot, Alves hardly seemed like the worst deal.
We all know what happened next. Alves found the net infrequently, and Boro — having spent a large portion of their transfer budget on the Brazilian — were relegated 16 months later.
It’s gone down as one of the worst January transfers in the Premier League, and rightfully so.
The striker’s goalscoring record, 10 goals in 42 appearances, sounds almost respectable, but it’s warped by the fact that 30 percent of those goals came in the infamous 8-1 hammering of a mutinous Manchester City, who were chucking goals into their own net in a weird gesture of solidarity with Sven-Göran Eriksson.
I’ll correct that to seven in 42, Afonso, which makes you as bad as Jérémie Aliadière.
But while the Afonso Alves transfer was in some small way a catalyst for Boro’s decline, it was perhaps more significant in another sense.
Gareth Southgate was unlucky. In 2008, most of us thought domestic Dutch football was worse than domestic English football, but nobody knew that having ’34-goal season in the Eredivisie’ on your CV was about as meaningful as ‘strong familiarity with Microsoft Works suite’.
Yet so it proved between 2008 and 2009. Alves wasn’t just ineffective in the Premier League, he was absolutely toothless, failing spectacularly where other burly forwards like Mark Viduka and Yakubu had very recently succeeded.
For many people, this marked a significant shift in opinion about Dutch football.
Ever since Alves’ difficult spell at Boro, fans and media have offered grave warnings about transfers from Holland: You could be getting a Luis Suarez, yes, but you could be getting an Afonso Alves!
And to some extent, Eredivisie naysayers have been vindicated. Over the last decade, other players have done their best to cement the Alves legacy — by showing that Dutch goals aren’t exchangeable for English ones.
Look at Memphis Depay and Vincent Janssen, for example. Both were top scorers in the Eredivisie, Depay in 2014-15 and Janssen the season after.
During their respective stints at Man United and Tottenham, the free-scoring forwards bagged a total of four goals in 60 appearances between them.
Davy Klaassen, who honestly looked the bees knees against Willem II, didn’t start a single Premier League game for Everton after September of his first season.
This is ultimately why the sight of Yaya Sanogo at Holland’s most decorated club wasn’t all that surprising. When free-scoring Eredivisie players come to the Premier League and score no goals, it seems perfectly plausible — if entirely illogical — that a non-scoring Premier League player might top the scoring charts in Holland.
Sanogo didn’t, but you can’t blame him or Ajax for thinking he might.
Of course, there isn’t actually much truth in this new, sceptical perception of the Eredivisie. There are still excellent players in the Dutch league, and there is often great value to be found in the transfer market there, with Christian Eriksen a prime example.
But while the Afonso Alves transfer doesn’t say anything tangible about the Eredivisie, it does show something more important: that numbers don’t mean everything — that even seven goals in a single game against Heracles can be rendered meaningless by context.
And therein lies the true worth of the striker’s legacy. Alves, if not a great advert for football in the Netherlands, at least showed that quality means more than quantity.