The past days, some commotion has been caused by Ronald Koeman, trainer of Feyenoord, who benched his player Kelvin Leerdam. Leerdam still has a contract with Feyenoord until the end of the (football) year, and refuses to sign another contract. Feyenoord thus risks losing him without receiving a sum of money. Koeman therefore decided to not let him play anymore for the first team, despite his qualities as a football player, which otherwise would have earned him a spot in the first squad.
Outrage is voiced for instance by the Dutch football players’ Union. They find it ridiculous that Leerdam is not playing, because he has the necessary skills. Leerdam himself said that he does not understand Koeman, because there are plenty of players in the Dutch league who have a contract that ends at the end of the year, but who can play for their team nonetheless. He says: “The best players have to play.”
Leerdam and those supporting him miss some crucial points. The most important point is that it is not about Kelvin Leerdam. It is about youth players enjoying a costly education, only to be transferred without a decent reward. The Bosman ruling in 1995, concerning Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman, ruled (in addition to prohibiting quotas on foreign players) that football clubs can no longer prevent their players from leaving when contracts have expired.
Clubs thus got more careful with regard to letting contracts of their players expire. Therefore, some years ago, Feyenoord talents would only leave Rotterdam for clubs like Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, and Bayern Münich, because such clubs had the funds and the appeal to back this up; when they wanted to have a certain player really bad, they could make it happen, resulting in a decent (financial) reward for Feyenoord. An example is Kuyt in the case of Feyenoord, but others include Van der Vaart, Sneijder, and Huntelaar in the case of Ajax, and Afellay in the case of PSV (admittedly, they are of a different level than Leerdam).
Feyenoord, however, has a particularly humiliating recent history regarding talented youth players being transferred. Leroy Fer, Luc Castaignos (although his case is more complicated), Georgino Wijnaldum, Jonathan de Guzmán, and some others, are all examples of talented young players who thought that it was better for them (predominantly financially) to move to other clubs, which except for de Guzmán were even Dutch clubs. They had to be let go by Feyenoord, because they were in financial dire straits. Feyenoord balanced at the brink of bankruptcy, only to be saved by private investors. There were no resources to offer these players a salary that would convince them to stay, and they had to be let go at bargain prices – if at a price at all.
After years of austerity (yes, austerity can work), Feyenoord is performing better again, both financially and on the pitch. It is only logical that Feyenoord is now able to protect its assets – its players – better. Kelvin Leerdam (or his agent) probably looked at the examples of Fer, Wijnaldum, Castaignos, and de Guzmán, and thought that if he would just refuse to sign, he could be transferred easily to some other club. Koeman, backed by Van Geel, acts very wisely to refuse Leerdam to play, despite that in the short run Leerdam may indeed improve Feyenoord’s game. Next to perhaps being able to earn something when he is sold during the winter break, this creates the perfect example Feyenoord needs. Talents should know that they cannot just enjoy one of the best football educations in the world, only to serve other clubs in later stages.
The next young talent trying to force a lucrative transfer will think twice about refusing a (perhaps decent!) offer to extend the contract. Koeman’s decision will pay off.