After nearly 50 years in the game, the Dutchman heads into retirement but not before leaving a lasting impact at Al Jazira
Henk ten Cate interview: From Ajax to Abu Dhabi, a life dedicated to football makes way for family
Henk ten Cate sits in a restaurant in Abu Dhabi, finished with Al Jazira and done with football, too.
Now 63, he has given almost half a century to the game, first as a left winger in his native Netherlands and briefly the United States, then as a coach, spending time along the way in Germany, Hungary, Spain, Greece, Qatar, China and, until last week, the UAE.
He has managed Ajax, been assistant to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona and Avram Grant at Chelsea. During three years at the Camp Nou, he helped mastermind two Spanish top-flight titles and a Uefa Champions League success, offering encouragement and tactical advice to Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. He advanced Lionel Messi’s burgeoning talent, smoothing the Argentine's transition into the Barca first team.
Most recently, Ten Cate guided Al Jazira through their most successful period. They won the President’s Cup in his first six months, then the UAE championship the following season, only the second in the club's history. Last December, Jazira even gave Real Madrid a mighty scare at the Fifa Club World Cup.
But after 30 months in Abu Dhabi and almost 50 years in football, Ten Cate has called time on his career. He is older, by his own admission considerably greyer, ready to spend his days with his wife and his children and, especially, his grandchildren. One peers up at him from the screensaver on his iPhone.
Football has been his life. Now family assumes priority. Although, for a man still in demand – Ten Cate politely turns down one high-profile job offered mid-conversation by phone – it is hard to fully let go. Jazira, though, seems a good place to go out.
“In life you can never say never,” Ten Cate says. “As I’m sitting here now it’s my last job in football. I’m not even going to work in television anymore. This is it. I’ve spent 47 years of my life in football and that’s a lot. I think it’s enough.
“But I love the game. I hate the backstabbing, the secret trades and deals. It’s not me, but I’ve loved this game so much since I was a kid. The only toy I had until I was 14 was a ball. I was only playing with a ball, on the streets and going to and from school. Then I would change my shoes and go out to a square where we’d play.
“It all related to ball games. It’s my life. I was lucky to have a family who supported me, so I developed myself into a coach and the person I am today. And I thank my family for that and following me all over the world. My youngest daughter is now in a relationship with a footballer so she will understand.
“I can look back on a very nice career. Of course, with ups and downs but more ups than downs. I worked at the top of the league and with the very best in the world. I’ve worked with the worst, too, but the love for football kept me going. I still have it, but I also realise it’s about time.
"I still have my mother, she’s in good health and about 84, and the last couple of months I was thinking how long do I still have her for? All those thoughts made me make this decision. It was difficult. It still is now.”
Jazira has had its low points, but at the same time been good for him. Ten Cate arrived in December 2015, with the club threatened by relegation. Then he did what he does best: cajoled his players, coaxed from them their very best. He made Jazira believe in their talent, and for the next two years particularly, the club soared.
The 2016 President’s Cup. The 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League. Almost ending Madrid’s Club World Cup defence, at a swarming Zayed Sports City, despite the domestic struggles and the off-field issues.
Understandably, the success at Jazira ranks high among what came before it.
“I won three trophies with Ajax,” Ten Cate says. “Ajax was difficult, they’re a difficult club to manage. All eyes are on you in Holland because of the history and size of the club. That was something special.
“Barcelona with Frank Rijkaard was also something special, because we managed to create something out of nothing. Making a team together with all the people that helped, which was not only successful, but also thrilled the world. It was not easy.
“Here, maybe the biggest achievement was bringing in a different philosophy to the club and players. I made them realise that, with a lot of effort and hard work, you can achieve goals that seem unreachable. With teamwork, attitude, spirit and of course quality, you can climb mountains.
“[Defender] Mohammed Fawzi said I had them believing in themselves, that they could do something. He said he would forever be thankful; ‘My career was down the drain two years ago. Nobody believed in me, but you made me believe I could be a good footballer and achieve things’. A title? This is more than that. The road to a title is much more important than winning the title itself.”
Ten Cate is reluctant to talk about his legacy at Jazira - "I don't want to compare myself to a legend who left a legacy" - yet it is easy to see. In, among others, Mohammed Jamal, Salem Rashid, Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi, he continually promoted youth. It has been a constant approach throughout his career.
“Now we won and it was recognised," Ten Cate says. "But youngsters don’t often get the chance because foreign coaches are here to win, not to build. I believe that building and winning can go together. It’s how I have always worked. It’s probably my Dutch background. Not winning a title, what I’m most proud of is that it worked. A lot of players have made a debut in the first team and national team.”
Even so, furthering that development is enough not to convince him to stay. There are more important things to occupy his time, and it is not lost on Ten Cate that what happened this month to Alex Ferguson can thrust things into perspective.
He knows the former Manchester United manager from coaching seminars when manager of Ajax and Panathinaikos, and speaks warmly about Ferguson the professional and Ferguson the person.
There are differences of course – Ferguson spent the majority of his managerial career at one of the world’s most demanding clubs, but lived that period close to loved ones – and there are similarities as well. Both devoted their lives to football, both left it ultimately because family mattered more.
“It’s terrible news what happened to him,” Ten Cate says. “This guy is one of football’s icons. It was devastating to hear. The job he did, his lifetime’s career is a stressful one. I have white hair; it used to be black. This job costs a lot. It asks a lot from your body and your mind.
“What happened is very sad and I hope he recovers fully. This is, how do you say, a football animal? He lives it. He was born football and he will die football, hopefully not for a long time.
“I cannot imagine there is anyone who does not have a lot of respect for this man. There is immense respect for him. He is the game. I wish him all the best and that I will see him very soon again. He’s one of a kind. He’s a legend of football.”
Judging by the well wishes from his players upon his departure, it feels as if Jazira hold Ten Cate in comparably high regard. He will return to the club in January “for sure”, if only to check in on firm friends and take in the 2019 Asian Cup.
He has told Al Attas, a 20-year-old defender-cum-midfielder he entrusted to shackle Madrid and whom Ten Cate believes is destined for the top, that he expects by then to see him representing the UAE national team on home soil.
Through Al Attas and others, that connection to Jazira will remain.
“I left a club where I’m loved," Ten Cate says. “They appreciate my work. I’m as crazy as anyone. I’m not perfect, but I found a group who could cope. It was a good partnership.
“To leave two and a half years of your life is not easy, to leave 47 years behind is not easy. But I promised myself, because of the last two and a half years, that if I’d signed for another club I felt I would have deserted my team and this is something I didn’t want. I will never sign for another team here. I may be tempted sometimes. Who knows if I will not get itchy feet in a few months’ time?
“It’s been really satisfying. It’s the end of the road and maybe I should go now. I look back on a very special period of my career and my life. I will always look back with a very good feeling.”
His words to the prospective employer who tendered the job mid-conversation probably sum it up best.
“I’ve finished my career and I’m going home now," Ten Cate told the caller. "I’ve been a long time abroad. So I plan to take my rest.”