Frank de Boer: ‘Equal pay at international level now would be ridiculous’ | Football
When José Mourinho called Frank de Boer “the worst manager in the history of the Premier League”, the Dutchman’s ego remained intact. De Boer is a realist. Zero points and zero goals from four league games before his September 2017 sacking at Crystal Palace was indeed historically poor.
“At that moment, he can say that because it was a really bad record, of course,” De Boer tells the Guardian. “For me, if he wants to say that, I’m not the guy who wants to respond to that … I think karma always strikes back.”
De Boer lasted just 77 days at Selhurst Park, a short tenure that came on the heels of an 85-day run at Internazionale. After a world-class playing career and establishing himself as one of Europe’s rising managerial stars with four Eredivisie titles in six years at his boyhood club, Ajax, De Boer’s reputation crumbled to dust in 13 months.
Now the 49-year-old manages Atlanta United, the reigning Major League Soccer champions who in their first two seasons shattered all expectations of what club football can look like in America, on the field and in the stands. De Boer replaced former Barcelona and Argentina boss Gerardo “Tata” Martino in January. De Boer’s start in Atlanta was familiar: his team did not pick up a win from their first four MLS games. After Atlanta publicly set the goal of becoming the first American side to become Concacaf club champions since LA Galaxy in 2000, they crashed out in the quarter-finals. Atlanta scored 149 goals in MLS play over their first two seasons. They managed two in the first month of 2019. A Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd of 70,382 booed De Boer’s team off the field following a 1-1 draw against MLS expansion side FC Cincinnati in Atlanta’s home opener.
Results have since improved. De Boer says he never lost confidence during yet another dismal start. Now, into the second-half of the season, Atlanta are up to second place in MLS’s Eastern Conference and have reached the final of the US Open Cup.
De Boer is certain this recovery proves he would have achieved the same resurgence at Inter and Palace. “I’m convinced,” he says over a double espresso in the lobby of Atlanta’s palatial training center. “I think if we get the time we should, we definitely turn it around, especially at Crystal Palace. We had a feeling, in training you saw it, that this is the moment we’re going to go looking up and win games. And then they decided to sack me. Of course that’s not the nicest feeling, but it’s like that.”
De Boer claims to still have a good relationship with Crystal Palace fans: “I think they know I put all my effort in it, and in England they just want to see that, that’s for sure.” But he feels shortchanged by his brief time at the club and believes he did not receive a fair chance at achieving the task with which he was charged.
“I was especially angry,” de Boer says. “They do some promises and they have a philosophy: ‘OK, we want to be a solid club.’ For example, Crystal Palace, you have to also play like a modern team and don’t play relegation football. If you want to do that, OK, one year you can survive, maybe two years. But one time you will go down, I am convinced.
“So they wanted to change that, like Southampton was doing in that period. I saw that picture in front of me, so I had the feeling that I had time, but when the season started, you already see some signs that this is not the way. You always walk in front of a door, and it’s not opening, and I had the feeling again, and also at Inter, that we have to do this and this, and then we make our steps forward. Every time somebody was stepping on the brakes.”
A ball-playing center-back with 112 caps for the Netherlands, De Boer estimates he would be worth 70m-80m euros if he was playing today. He says Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk is the best central defender in the world right now, though he acknowledges that assertion may be “patriotic.”
De Boer won six league titles and one Champions League in his 16 seasons playing with Ajax and Barcelona. Three months ago, his old clubs were close to meeting in a “De Boer derby” of sorts at the Champions League final in Madrid. However, both experienced excruciating semi-final exits at the hands of English sides – depleted English sides at that.
“Because there is so much money involved, of course [Premier League teams] can buy the best players,” De Boer says. “But I think also the England quality, they started years ago with the academies to get the quality higher in these players. I think maybe now it’s a time that we see the result of that. The first 11 are quite OK, but then you have a really big gap, a lot of teams have that. In England, you have like 20, 30 good players, so the level will not drop that far.”
De Boer also talks about a more sinister aspect of European football. He recalls a game he played with Ajax at Hungary’s Ferencváros. Fans directed ape noises at his black teammates, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids. Decades later, racial abuse inside football grounds is still a problem across Europe. De Boer believes “really big fines” should be levied against teams whose supporters engage in racism and, if that doesn’t work, closed stadiums and docked points should be looked at. “In Holland, we have a saying: ‘If you don’t learn it the soft way, you have to learn it the hard way.’”
De Boer captained the Netherlands to a fourth-place finish at the 1998 World Cup in France. This year, the Dutch women reach the Women’s World Cup final, where they lost to the US. The Royal Dutch Football Association, meanwhile, has taken the lead and committed to level the pay for men’s and women’s national team players. The women will receive annual raises through 2023, when their earnings for national team service will equal that of their male compatriots. The US women’s team are involved in their own dispute with their federation over equal pay. De Boer, it is fair to say, has differing views.
“I think for me, it’s ridiculous,” De Boer says of the policy. “It’s the same like tennis. If there are watching, for the World Cup final, 500 million people or something like that, and 100 million for a women’s final, that’s a difference. So it’s not the same. And of course they have to be paid what they deserve to [earn] and not less, just what they really deserve. If it’s just as popular as the men, they will get it, because the income and the advertising will go into that. But it’s not like that, so why do they have to earn the same? I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t understand that.”
De Boer believes the move is a reaction to wider inequalities in society. “I think it started because a woman [was] getting underpaid, especially at [managerial] positions,” he says. “They have to earn the same like a man. I think if you have a manager position for a bank or something, you have to earn the same what the men did because it’s not physically, just only here [points to head], so why do you have to earn less, because you’re doing the same job as a man? I think that’s also dropped a little bit into the sports world, like tennis and soccer. But I think that’s still different.”
Since departing Europe for America, De Boer has had a close look at the United States as a burgeoning football country, its potential and what is holding it back. He says it is important for more senior American players to make inroads abroad. But he is an Ajax man, so he points to the nation’s youth as the key to unlocking greater success for MLS and the US men’s national team.
“The big clubs, they started their own academy,” he says. “I think that’s important. The age between seven and 14 is so important. The basic techniques are in that, and afterwards it’s mentality. Tactically, between seven and 14 or six and 14, they have to have good coaches and understand the basic things of football: control the ball, know where the ball is, those kinds of things. … If everybody’s doing that, the level will go up, because we can fish in a bigger lake to get the best players.
“Every league starts with homegrown players. The other leagues have much more history so I think still it takes decades to really come to that standard level. But I think we have to try to come there, because we have to try to get – every year we want to raise our bar from a club’s point of view, but also as MLS, as the federation.”