Saturday Apr 10, 2021  
  31/07/2014: Lazio and the Dutch
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Clubs can have a strange way of forming bonds with players of a particular origin.

Some are obvious and logical – for example, why an Irish footballer would be loved at Celtic or why an Argentine fantasista who joins Napoli inevitably draws comparisons with the greatest footballer of all time.

Some are less self-explanatory. Take, for instance, Lazio’s penchant for Serbs.

Born seemingly out of nothing apart from the importance of Dejan Stanković and Siniša Mihajlović during the club’s halcyon years at the turn of the century, nowadays the signing of a Serb is usually met with optimism.

Other clubs have their own affinities of course. Napoli shares with us a love of all things Argentine. The club of 1927 is known to enjoy success with players from Brazil. Juventus has often been the destination of choice for fine French footballers landing in Serie A. And who could forget Milan’s magnificent band of Dutchmen?

The rossoneri have been rewarded for their love of the oranje - Rijkaard, Gullit and Marco van Basten were later followed by Clarence Seedorf. The likes of Van Bommel and De Jong weren’t stars but were serviceable all the same.

And hey – why wouldn’t it be so, considering few people out there don’t have some appreciation for the innovative brand of football the Dutch are renowned for playing?

The Dutch fascination never quite took off at Lazio but things could have gone very differently.

Ahead of the 1980-81 season, Serie A threw open its doors to foreign players for the first time in 15 years. Coming off a poor season in which it picked up just five wins, Lazio needed a big name and director general Luciano Moggi duly found one.

René van der Kerkhof was a member of the great Dutch totalvoetbaal side of the 70s and he had played in both of the Netherlands’ losing World Cup finals. At age 29 and still a premier midfielder of world football, he signed for Lazio from PSV Eindhoven.

Van der Kerkhof’s first task in Italy was to join the side for its pre-season ritiro at San Terenziano in Umbria. It was while he was there everything went wrong.

The Totonero betting scandal broke. Lazio was sent down to Serie B and three of its iconic players were handed severe bans. The party was over.

Foreigners were allowed to play in Serie A for the first time since 1965 but there was no such opening of the gate for the second tier. The club was forced to tear up van der Kerkhof’s contract. The star left the ritiro and went back to PSV.

Lazio endured the most turbulent decade of its history and it wasn’t until it was back on the rise in the early 1990s that the club flirted with Dutch football again.

Ajax’s Aron Winter signed for the club in 1992, becoming the first Dutch player to actually feature in a competitive fixture wearing the Lazio shirt.

Famous for his ability to cover ground in midfield and to score from outside the penalty area, Winter was one of the first players to really raise the pedigree of the side as its ambition grew.

And he was as important off the pitch as on it. The Surinamese-born midfielder was forced to take on the backward mindset of certain supporters in addition to the challenge of improving the team.

Nine years after Winter’s arrival, legendary Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson made what he described as one of the greatest mistakes of his career. He sold Jaap Stam to Lazio.

The big Dutchman terrorised opposing forwards up and down the peninsula during the final years of Sergio Cragnotti’s tenure. He was just the second Dutch player to play for the club and there hasn’t been one since.

That only two Dutch players have ever lined up in a Lazio shirt is perhaps a surprise, given their success at international level, and in Serie A too.

The club has decided to change this.

Stefan de Vrij is the high profile signing of the summer. The defender admits many clubs were interested in his services after a fantastic World Cup but Lazio had been the only team to show an interest before June – a sign the club is actively monitoring the Dutch market and talented players at its biggest clubs like Feyenoord.

A member of the Netherlands’ 2010 World Cup side, Edson Braafheid, is expected to join de Vrij at the club.

Perhaps more intriguingly though - in the unveiling of its new youth academy in May - Lazio revealed it had appointed Dutch coach Joop Lensen as the program’s director, with an intention to model it on the famous Ajax school of football.

Time will tell whether this arrangement bears fruit and no one can say for sure whether methods that work so well in Amsterdam and Rotterdam can be replicated in a completely different environment in Rome.

Yet few would argue thinking outside the box is a bad thing for a club yearning to break the glass ceiling and re-enter the European elite.

More than three decades have passed since René van der Kerkhof put pen to paper on his Lazio deal that wasn’t. It would appear that Lazio has decided the time has finally come for a love affair with Dutch football.
Author: Christopher Testa
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