Speaker Series Recap • Michael van Praag

Two weeks ago, the director of the Royal Dutch Football League (KNVB) and Vice-President of UEFA visited the VU to discuss and to express his opinion about ‘hot’ topics in football: What’s the deal with all the corruption? Why are the rules of the game still so old fashion? In this Speaker Series Recap, we look back at an informative and successful afternoon with the one and only Michael van Praag and tell you all about his answers to these and many more burning questions regarding football.

Michael van Praag (1947) has been director of the KNVB since 2008 and Vice-President of UEFA since 2015. Yet, his career in the football industry started way earlier in 1989 when he followed in his father’s footsteps and became the chairman of the Dutch Association football club AFC Ajax until mid 2003. In 2015, he was also running for FIFA President with the mission of creating more transparency and fairness in the football industry.

Why are the rules of the game very old fashion?

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is the institution which determines the international ‘Laws of the Game’ (game rules). Although FIFA is a separate board, they hold 50% of the voting power within IFAB. “This is why changing the football rules is very hard”, van Praag states. “There is almost never a chance the rules will change since the President of FIFA always has more votes on his side”.

Van Praag suggested the Dutch Football Federation to do something about it. Luckily, they already have made some progress. Three years ago, they received permission to test the ‘video referee system’ during Dutch competitions, and it works out very well. Furthermore, they have appointed Marco van Basten as the ‘football inventor’, as he was a very well-known and respected soccer player. Van Praag: “When Marco walks by everyone’s jaws open. He is like a god”. What Marco says about football makes sense to people, which results in his ideas taken into consideration by the board.

How do you deal with negative publicity about football clubs performing bad?

In football, it is the case that if a team is successful then trainers and players are fantastic, but when a team is not so successful who is then to blame: the board members. “As if I shoot the penalties!”, van Praag jokes. “We have to be honest with ourselves”, van Praag continues. “If we don’t have the talent to follow in the footsteps of Arjen and other great players, then that’s a pity. We can’t do anything about it”. Furthermore, it is a problem that talents leave the Dutch clubs as soon as they are offered a better contract by a foreign club.

However, van Praag has noticed that Dutch players get spoiled too much. The player’s salary and the luxury facilities remain the same, even if they play a bad game. The downside of this is that it results in sloppy performances on the field. Therefore, it is certainly also a mental thing that they do not play that well. He is convinced that this can only be solved by for example stop using luxury facilities. In fact, a new ‘back-to-basic’ training center in Zeist has opened its doors to address this problem. Unfortunately, teams who need this change the most rejected the offer. Van Praag: “Ajax rejected as well. Well… do you see them playing in the Champions League?”.

How can foreign football clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain be so rich?

There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that you have to subscribe to watch certain television channels. This is also the case for Premier League television, where subscribers pay up to eighty pounds for. Even before the ball gets kicked, the club already earns 150 million pounds due to these subscribers.

The second reason is that Arab countries buy football clubs for lots of money. Not only to make profit but to be successful, since status is very important in these countries. This happened to Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, which were bought by Qatar. Now, these clubs are able to buy some of the best players in the world.  

What’s the deal with all the corruption within FIFA?

Van Praag agrees that there is lot of corruption going on within FIFA and that this is a big problem since it involves many board members. “It is such a disappointment”, van Praag says. “Board members at FIFA agreed with me and said, ‘yes we need to get rid of corruption’. Where are most of these people now? All in jail in America.”

A lot of them have been proven by the FBI to be corrupt. One morning, during a board conference in Zurich, these members were put in jail by the Swiss police and later on transported to America. Van Praag: “Now even Jeffrey Webb is pronounced guilty. How in earth are we going to have a clean FIFA?”

Fortunately, van Praag has trust in the new FIFA president, Gianni Infantino. Infantino experienced a lot of resistance because he wanted to get rid of all the corrupt people. Many became afraid and even started accusing each other of illegal deeds.

During the Speaker Series event, students were also given the opportunity to ask Michael van Praag their own critical questions. Below you will find his answers to some of those questions:

What can the Dutch Federation do about the loss of young talent?

Regulations are needed to keep them in the Netherlands and UEFA is the only organization which can help, since they operate in 55 countries. Luckily, not only UEFA, but also the European Club Association and even the chairman of the Player’s Agent Federation want to do something about it. They also recognize the problem that if this carries on, there is nothing exciting left to look at in the competitions. Van Praag is confident that something will change probably within the next two years.

If you would’ve become the president of FIFA, how would you have done this job and how would this differ from the former President?

Van Praag was very clear about this: “I want more transparency and more people on the board to be able to make decisions.” Furthermore, he would’ve wanted to put up an infrastructure fund so that smaller clubs also have the chance to buy good players and good facilities. Van Praag: “All those guys whom I talk with about my plans say, ‘yeah you should!’, but when I leave the room I know for sure they all think that I’m crazy”.

What made Blatter a clever president is that he knew how to deal with the different cultural mentalities, van Praag explains. “We have a Dutch mentality, but if you try to make a deal from a Dutch point of view, you will not succeed making a deal in India.” Blatter knew very well how to approach and deal with this. However, he also manipulated people, which resulted corruption and no major changes.

How can trainers better train their players?

Van Praag is convinced that this could be done by ‘mental coaching’. Today the programs of becoming a coach are only focused on the technical part of football, not on motivation and team spirit. The best coaches in Holland were all former gymnastic teachers. “Mental coaching is very difficult and many trainers don’t want to implement it in their training, as they think they can do without it”, van Praag mentions. Besides, many trainers and sports media don’t believe that it will improve the player’s performance. Van Praag: “But I do! If you’re nineteen years old and 50.000 people are watching you and ‘booing’ you when you make a mistake, you will become afraid of making another one and start playing safe.”

Fun fact

To close off, we picked out one fun fact that stood out during Van Praag’s speach. Did you know he hardly has any knowledge of the technical stuff regarding football! This is how Van Praag put it:

“Image I was the chairman of KLM, then I am responsible for guiding the company into a new future, but do not ask me how to land a jumbo jet! It’s all about surrounding yourself with qualified people who know about certain things.”

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