It is the end of an eventful day for Crystal Palace’s new manager, Frank de Boer, starting with training in Beckenham, where he casually juggles the ball to admiring glances. “Sometimes it is to show them I can still kick a ball,” the 47-year-old smiles.
As Wednesday afternoon melts into evening, De Boer gets ensconced with his squad at their training retreat, St George’s Park, before finding time to talk about his plans for Palace but first about his illustrious career. For Ajax, Barcelona and Holland, De Boer intercepted and kicked a ball with true elegance, and accuracy, launching passing moves, leading and marshalling defences over almost two decades, as well as swerving in free kicks.
He was demanding of his team-mates, constantly challenging them. “I sometimes think 'why didn’t they get crazy with me?!'” He thought a move or two ahead. “I said to Marc Overmars that ‘every ball I give you has a message. If I give a ball to your left, then you know you can turn there. If I give it to your right, probably it’s because there’s an opponent standing there.’
“So all those small details can make the difference in losing your man, or not losing the ball. I say to my players, ‘if you give a ball, you give it always with a message. It’s not 'here you have the ball, and you take care of it'. No. You already know what the next step has to be.”
This footballing sophisticate smiled again at the question of whether his young squad were fully aware of his contribution to the game. “Probably most players will go to Google and see some things,’’ he said. Amazing things. His career is so familiar, so Dutch, being so successful at Ajax, particularly bringing Champions League glory under Louis van Gaal against AC Milan in 1995. “It was a very ugly game to watch but it was a fantastic goal (from Patrick Kluivert), for a youngster to make a (winning) goal like that.
“Van Gaal was very direct, very clear in his vision and what he expects from us. We were quite young at that time, so then you can mould players much better.” De Boer went on to Barcelona, winning La Liga with Van Gaal, and always listening to a legendary compatriot synonymous with Ajax and Barcelona, Johan Cruyff. “For Dutch football, and maybe also worldwide, he is the most important person ever as a thinker, a visionary,” De Boer adds.
“It was fantastic the small, crazy things he thought about. I give you one example. At Barcelona, he said, ‘How is it possible the away kit is black? Everyone in the stands wears black, so in a split-second, you don’t see your team-mate. You have to have bright colours so you can see directly.’ Top football is about detail. Cruyff was a very nice person, very humble. He could also be very hard, especially on people who in his eyes want to be bossy and didn’t know anything about football.”
Leaving Cruyff’s Catalan domain, De Boer moved on to Galatasaray, then Rangers. All along this glittering club highway came 112 appearances for Holland. “In 94, I was in the States but I didn’t show the real Frank de Boer. I missed Euro 96 injured. For France 98, I focused on one thing for the whole year and that was to show the world the real Frank de Boer. We had a fantastic tournament, just (needing) to believe a bit more that we could be world champions.”
In the semi-finals, Holland lost to Brazil on penalties in Marseille (De Boer converted the first), but it was their previous visit to Stade Velodrome that brought one of the World Cup’s most memorable moments. Holland and Argentina were locked at 1-1, extra time looming, and suddenly De Boer strolled forward before raking a 60-yard pass from left to right for Dennis Bergkamp to score with typical elan. “You can go to Ajax and see some highlights of Bergkamp goals, and you’ll find two or three similar (passes from De Boer), maybe 10 yards less. Also with (Jari) Litmanen later on in the same position. I always had an eye for that ball. They know ‘if I run, he probably sees me’.
“With the wingers in front of me, Bryan Roy and after that Overmars, they did one step towards me, and then I knew to put it over the last line, and they were so quick, and they were 10 metres free. For me, it was so easy.
“Of course I had the quality to give that pass, but I see that not too often any more. Now with the youth generation, with PlayStation, they think it’s ugly to run without the ball. First they have to make a trick, dribble past two or three men, and sometimes they don’t care if they give a good cross. It’s a pity. I see it a lot. Simple pass and centre, dribble and centre, that’s ugly for some of them. Overmars would pass the ball past an opponent’s leg and was running. He gave a centre and a lot of times it was a goal. You have to be effective.”
De Boer was invariably effective. Euro 2000 brought a spectacular free kick against France in Amsterdam. Bergkamp stood over the ball, Bernard Lama tried to sort his wall, De Boer came flying in and Lama could only push the strike up onto the bar, down and in. “It was planned. You remember Roberto Carlos (in the 1997 Tournoi)? I knew if I hit it like that the ball would swerve from right to left. I made also a goal against Valencia with Barcelona from the same distance almost. This was a little bit outside of the boot with my laces. Of course you have to have the technique to hit it well, but I thought ‘let’s try it’.”
Along with his twin Ronald, De Boer finished up playing in Qatar. They had an intuitive understanding on the pitch. “Of course. We had that chemistry you cannot explain. With his body language I knew already what he wants. I played with him from three until 36 almost. I knew every move, if he does one gesture, he wants the ball at his feet. If he does another gesture, he doesn’t want it.
“But I could also be so mad at him, sometimes in the game, sometimes in training. Can you imagine? We were 35 in Qatar and I was so p*ssed (off) with him, I was shouting at him, ‘What the hell is this!’ 35! He didn’t train properly as he should and was dribbling past three men, not working backwards, not winning the ball again, he wanted to spoil my training. Get out! After 30 seconds, we are best friends. He’s my best friend.”
De Boer was always devoted to his craft, admiring the likes of Pete Sampras, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer for their sustained commitment in tennis. “To come to a certain level is sometimes not so hard, but to stay at that level is the hardest thing; every day to dedicate that you want to perform at the highest level, to think about your body, the physical aspects. If you’re Sampras, Nadal or Federer, every time you’re focused.” De Boer even mentions Nadal’s tics. “I think it’s quite annoying, but it’s only to make him focus. It’s his psychology that he knows, and it helps him.”
De Boer misses playing. “When you’re young and see a ball, even if it’s two metres away, you want to touch it. I have that still in me. When I stopped playing, at that moment it was not really difficult because it was a decision after a fantastic career.
“What I feel difficult now is that in my mind I can still do anything with the ball! Pass over 40 metres! But my body now doesn’t let me. When I participate in games now, indoors, futsal, or friendlies with the veterans of Ajax, I injure my hamstring, my calf swells up after 30 minutes, I have to stop, and sit on the bench.”
Steeping into management, De Boer steered Ajax to four titles before the embarrassment of early dismissal at Inter Milan last year. “When you come to training grounds, you see words, messaging that 'If You Didn’t Fail, You Didn’t Learn Anything'. First you have to fail to be better. I did. It was a good experience. I came out as a better manager.”
He emphasizes his “respect” for Inter’s Chinese owners before highlighting one issue. “They have a lot of punishment and rewarding in China. That’s the culture. The owners wanted the players (locked) in the training ground for one week because they lost a game. They did – and lost the next game.”
De Boer finds Palace’s chairman, Steve Parish, far more engaging. “He’s honest. He’s a businessman also but he loves the club, and first wants to make Palace a very steady club. With Mark Bright by his side, he knows a lot about the game, so you cannot fool him. Mark’s an ambassador of the club, he knows everything. Also Sammy Lee is very important for me; he knows everything about the Premier League, he’s experienced, the same as Mark.”
He beams at the thought of challenging coaches of the quality of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, whom he knows from the Nou Camp. “With the coaches here, you want to be here, and that’s why I’m very proud. A friend of mine congratulated me, saying 'you can be very proud, you’re one of the 20 managers of the Premier League, the best league in the world, the most watched of the world’.”
The best? “Spain is a fantastic league, no doubt, but it’s always Barcelona and (Real) Madrid and Atletico lately. Here, everyone says every team can win. Mostly the top six are always there but they had to fight for every point. The depth is much better in the Premier League. And also the atmosphere. It’s like what they did with the NBA. They sold the product so well. Everyone’s happy to watch the Premier League.”
He’s getting to know his squad, and is clearly impressed by Wilfried Zaha. “That kind of player is the one you come to visit the stadium for. He can make the difference. With the Robbens, Messis and Ronaldos, you have to get those players in their best position so they can show their qualities. We want to try that with Zaha because he can be decisive. He’s shown that already; he’s still young (24), can still improve. So I’m very happy he’s still at Palace. There are a lot of quality players at Palace.”
Yet fans debate how De Boer’s Ajax style, enjoying possession, will mesh with the squad’s counter-attacking strengths. “We’re not going to go suddenly totally the opposite - that’s suicide. We do it step by step. I don't say we have to play 4-3-3. To play possession because it’s fun to have the ball has no purpose.”
As at Ajax, De Boer has already started assessing the youth. “If they’re good enough, 100 per cent, I'll be interested. It motivates the academy; they get the feeling the manager takes them seriously. Let youth players ‘sniff’ what it means to train with the first team. Today Luke Dreher trained with us, 18 years old, and a very talented (midfield) player. Hopefully he can make the next step. He’s going to gain weight in muscles, now he’s a very thin guy, a little boy, but I see the quality, and I like that.”
De Boer relishes this assignment with Palace, signalling his Dutch heritage. “We are inventive, we were explorers. We adapt well.”