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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

AC Milan hero Clarence Seedorf has daunting challenge to revive Deportivo la Coruna's flagging fortunes

Primera Liga club, whose form dwindled after they beat Seedorf's AC Milan in the 2003 Champions League quarter-finals, have tapped the yet unproven Dutch manager for help

Clarence Seedorf will always remember the night his AC Milan side got thrashed by Deportivo, where he is now manager. Cabalar / EPA
Clarence Seedorf will always remember the night his AC Milan side got thrashed by Deportivo, where he is now manager. Cabalar / EPA

Clarence Seedorf had barely arrived on the premises of Deportivo la Coruna when a member of the staff reminded him of his most famous previous visit. “Someone already showed me a photo of that night,” Seedorf smiled at his presentation as the club’s manager.

That night was the fabled Uefa Champions League quarter-final 14 years ago, when the Dutchman came to Galicia as an AC Milan player with a 4-1 first-leg lead. He and Milan left stunned, blown off course in a 4-0 defeat.

At Deportivo, they will never forget the energy of that night. They have also come to reflect that in many ways it marked the end of a successful era.

Depor went out in the next round of the European Cup, and a period when they muscled their way to a Spanish title in 2000, a Copa del Rey in 2002, and reach the top four of the Champions League reached its close.

That golden time seems very distant now, viewed from 18th position in the Primera Liga, three points beneath safety.

Seedorf, 41 years old and embarking on his third job in what has been a abbreviated managerial career, has been taken on to haul Deportivo clear of what would be a third relegation from the top flight since 2010. Cristobal Parralo, the second of three managers at Depor this season, was dismissed following a three-match run including a 7-1 loss at Real Madrid and a 5-0 thrashing at Real Sociedad.

“We needed leadership,” Deportivo president Tino Fernandez explained, as he welcomed Seedorf.

Deportivo players celebrate as Clarence Seedorf, right, looks on at Riazor Stadium in 2004. Miguel Riopa / AFP
Deportivo players celebrate as Clarence Seedorf, right, looks on at Riazor Stadium in 2004. Miguel Riopa / AFP

There is abundant leadership in his status in the game, for sure. The charismatic Seedorf’s four European Cups as a player are a modern phenomenon, tribute to his longevity and his versatility. He won the first as a teenager with the Ajax of his native Netherlands, his second with Madrid, and his last two with Milan, in 2003 and 2007.

A teenage prodigy in the 1990s, Seedorf was still playing at the age of 37 – with Botafogo in Brazil – where he won Carioca championship, his fifth league title. He had barely hung up his boots than he was made AC Milan manager, a stint lasting half a season.

Add the 87 caps he won for the Netherlands, and it is a marvellous career. It was unique for its spread across elite clubs – he also played for Sampdoria and Inter Milan – and rare in that it featured a European superstar thriving in South American football.

But Seedorf has always been a man to accept fresh challenges, a non-conformist. As a young player at Madrid, where he won a league title as well as the European Cup, former sports director Jorge Valdano said Seedorf "would demand roles that ended up looking too big for him".

Most of the managers he played under remember his as discursive, talkative and always curious. Some, occasionally, took it as insolence. But he had the respect of, and took guidance from, some great coaches through his career.

At Ajax, Louis van Gaal promoted the boy with the braids and extraordinary energy. “He played with more experience than much older players,” Van Gaal said of him.

Seedorf warmed to the thoughtful coaching of Sven Goran Eriksson at Sampdoria, and he worked fruitfully over a long period with Carlo Ancelotti at Milan, where the flamboyant, creative player would over the years reshape his all-round midfield game.

He will bring a sharp, articulate intelligence to the Primera Liga’s touchlines, at least until June, when his contract will be up for renewal. Seedorf is fluent in five languages, and, mastering as he does Spanish and Portuguese, will gracefully deal with supporters talking to him in Gallego, La Coruna’s local tongue.

Clarence Seedorf did not enjoy much success as AC Milan manager. Sergio Perez / Reuters
Clarence Seedorf did not enjoy much success as AC Milan manager. Sergio Perez / Reuters

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His managerial record counts just 22 matches in charge of Milan – half of them victories – before he was replaced there in July 2014. He had just three wins out of 13 games while in charge of Chinese club Shenzhen in 2016.

But Seedorf had a straightforward point to make on the question about his credentials.

“You have to believe in young coaches, in the next generation,” he said, glancing at Spain’s biggest club for an example. “Zinedine Zidane had less experience as a coach than I do when he took over at Real Madrid, and look what he achieved.”

Namely, two Champions Leagues and a Primera Liga title in his first 18 months.

For Seedorf, who makes his bow at the Riazor stadium on Monday with the visit of Real Betis, the immediate demand is a first Deportivo win since early December.

He relishes the challenge. “I like handling hot potatoes,” he said.