For a player who for various reasons never really showed his true colours in international football, Clarence Seedorf is, in the literal sense, one of the greatest international footballers of all time.
The only man to win the European Cup with three different clubs, Seedorf did so with teams from the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, and also has the respective league titles to boot.
But arguably Seedorf’s most intriguing act of globetrotting came at the very end of his career when he became possibly the highest-profile European player to ever ply their trade in Brazil’s top flight.
You see, while the South American leagues are plundered by European clubs every year, the opposite journey is rarely made.
Yet in 2012, having grown frustrated at AC Milan as his playing time decreased alongside a lack of opportunities to play as a No. 10 under Max Allegri, Seedorf decided to end his 10-year association with the Rossoneri and look for a new challenge.
Despite being 36 at the time, there was no little interest in the midfielder, with West Ham among the Premier League clubs reportedly considering a move, as well as the now-standard lucrative offers from the MLS and Middle East which such a name commands.
Instead, Seedorf chose to join Botafogo, the least fashionable of Rio de Janeiro’s four major clubs after Fluminense, Flamengo and Vasco Da Gama.
Botafogo had tried to sign the Dutchman 12 months previously, and upon finally landing his man, president Mauricio Assuncao described Seedorf as the greatest foreign player to ever sign for a Brazilian club.
While the move raised plenty of eyebrows, Brazil has never been far away from Seedorf’s heart.
He was born in Suriname, the Dutch colony which shares a border with the north of Brazil, and lived there until he moved to Holland with his family as a toddler.
His wife, Luviana, is Brazilian, and he learned to speak Portuguese while at Real Madrid after rooming with Roberto Carlos.
Plus, growing up, the Selecao had a profound effect on him.
“When I was watching the 1986 World Cup with my dad, he had to take me outside and calm me down after Brazil lost to France,” Seedorf told FIFA’s official website.
“I was crying with anger, because it was Zico’s last tournament. For me, he was what football was all about.”
And for any remaining cynics who still thought that the move represented one last payday, Seedorf’s performances soon dispelled that notion. If anything, the transfer liberated him.
At that stage of a career, the majority of footballers find themselves playing deeper, trying to dictate proceedings and bring team-mates into the game. But that’s what Seedorf had escaped Milan to avoid, and he instead thrived on bursting forward, joining in with attacking play and scoring an eye-catching number of goals, with his muscular, powerful physique defying his age.
“In Brazil, because of the level of individual quality, coaches give their players that freedom,” he said. “They want their players to run at people.
“If you’ve got two men marking you, players here think they can beat them both no problem, and that’s what they’ll try and do.
“If you did that in the Netherlands they’d yell at you, ‘Two players? Pass the ball back, keep it moving.’ It’s a different mindset. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but I certainly feel closer to the Brazilian way.”
But Seedorf was not allowing himself to be self-indulgent at the expense of the team. He joined as part of a wider project to return Botafogo to glory. The club had not won the national title since 1995 and had not qualified for the Copa Libertadores in 18 years.
With a young squad, Seedorf was tasked by manager Oswaldo de Oliveira to use all his experience to instil a winning mentality at O Glorioso.
And sure enough, it would take less than 12 months before the serial winner was lifting yet another trophy, as Seedorf helped Botafogo win Rio’s State Championship, the Campeonato Carioca – a minor honour, it must be said, but for a club so starved as success, an important one nonetheless.
But it was not all plain sailing in his new surroundings, and Seedorf admitted it took him a while to get used to Brazilian football, both on the pitch and off.
While he was largely showered with affection by supporters, he did feel their wrath on one occasion as the squad were confronted and egged by angry fans after returning from a 2-1 defeat at Internacional.
Plus, there was the bizarre scene as he received only the second red card of his career – for walking off the pitch the wrong way.
However, after arriving in 2012 in the middle of Brazil’s season – when Botafogo would go on to finish a modest seventh – in his first full campaign, Seedorf’s influence was there for all to see.
With promising youngsters such Doria, Bruno Mendez and Jadson starting to flourish alongside the veteran, plus the arrival of Uruguay international Nicolas Lodeiro, Botafogo mounted an unlikely title challenge, with the team losing only three of their first 21 fixtures.
After a 4-1 victory over Nova Iguacu that year, Globoesporte were so compelled by Seedorf’s masterful display, their headline read “Garrincha style” as the maestro continued to dominate games in the final third.
Speaking about the midfielder’s influence, teenage defender Doria, who joined Marseille in 2014, told Sportskeeda: “It’s fantastic to have Seedorf leading us. He is a guy with a winning spirit and his presence lifts us, increasing our will to win. He helps us on and off the pitch.”
But the promising form could not be maintained, and a poor run of results over September and November effectively handed Cruzeiro the title, while Botafogo were left clinging on to fourth place, with the dream of qualifying for the Copa Libertadores hanging by a thread.
After a run of only four wins in 16 matches, it came down to the final day of the season for the Alvinegro to secure fourth spot, with Criciuma the visitors to the Maracana.
The young team held their nerve to record an emphatic 3-0 victory, but fittingly it was Seedorf who scored the final goal.
Leaving the pitch after being substituted late on, Seedorf embraced De Oliveira in tears in what would turn out to be his farewell appearance.
Throughout all his time in Rio, Seedorf’s contract included a clause which stipulated he would be able to return to Milan should he receive an offer to coach the Italian giants.
A month after the conclusion of the Campeonato Brasileiro, Allegri was sacked by the Rossoneri, and the call was made to one of their finest ever players.
Announcing the end of his playing career, Seedorf told a press conference: “I’m retiring with tranquility. Brazil welcomed me with open arms. I’ll never forget that.”
It seems a shame that Seedorf never got to help Botafogo in the Copa Libertadores, but in another sense this was a fitting end. He had completed his objective of returning the club to the stage which it had yearned for almost two decades.
If ever there was a journey for a football romantic, this was it. An icon following his heart to rekindle his love of the beautiful game – in the country which made it so pretty in the first place.
By Rob Conlon
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