MILAN (Reuters) - AC Milan midfielder Clarence Seedorf is on a mission to clean up football’s damaged image.
The Dutch international thinks Italian soccer can cut down on fan violence by making stadiums more family friendly and is the founder of a charity which uses sport to improve children’s education in poorer parts of the world.
He is also concerned about helping players who end up in the headlines for the wrong reasons and has set up a management company, of which he is the first client, to try to improve the services offered to footballers.
“Football is not just what you do on the field,” Seedorf told Reuters at his home. “I want to help. I don’t feel it like a weight on my shoulders. It is something I want to do.”
Seedorf, born in the poor South American state of Suriname before moving to the Netherlands, would seem the ideal footballer to get the message across.
The 31-year-old is also the only man to have won European Cups with three different clubs -- Ajax, Real Madrid and Milan.
Milan’s game at Atalanta last month was abandoned after fans tried to smash a fence next to the pitch in an ageing stadium, the latest in a series of hooligan incidents in Italy.
At Milan’s Champions League 1-1 draw at Benfica’s ultra-modern Stadium of Light last week, Seedorf saw where Italy had gone wrong and that new grounds attract calmer fans.
“In Lisbon, it was a great stadium, very public-friendly. Simple things make a difference. That’s what we need here in Italy. We need to build new stadiums. Outside of Italy people are addressing these issues,” he said.
Football’s ills, he says, extend to millionaire players, hauled around clubs by money-making agents and sometimes trapped in a world of excess with little thought for their careers after soccer.
Seedorf felt action was needed and so founded his own all-encompassing management firm, ON International, a year ago.
The agency is also an entertainment and investment management company which is trying to offer a range of services Seedorf believes are unavailable elsewhere.
As the first client in his own company, Seedorf entrusted ON International to help negotiate a new contract keeping him at Milan until 2011. The firm also ran a media campaign to improve a tarnished image in the Netherlands, which helped him to regain his place in the Dutch national team.
“Without players there is no football but they need to have more awareness of what they can build, what their reach is, what responsibilities they have. For sure you start working on the younger players, it is easier to educate them,” Seedorf said.
”I am aware of my own position and my responsibilities to youngsters watching us. You are a role model. But without a structure there is too much to focus on.
“You perform better if you are freer from some of the issues and you focus more on your main goal -- playing great football. In most sports with elite performance they don’t just have agents, they have structures which help them grow as a person.”
ON International’s other clients include Milan and Italy defender Daniele Bonera with more high-profile names to come.
“Players don’t trust most of the people around them. I wanted my face as the first client for people to understand that it is serious and transparent,” Seedorf said. “We will work on it long term and it will absolutely make a difference in football.”
His foundation, Champions for Children, is another part of Seedorf’s grand plan.
“I‘m on a mission partly to make a difference in the world for the better, starting with the kids. They are the future. In most places in the world there are no structures. There’s no personnel to be able to educate like in the West,” he said.
“We are using sport especially football to educate moral values...dignity and self-respect that will make a difference in the long term.”
Schemes funded by the charity include the construction of a Kenyan school and a sports centre in Brazil while there are plans for projects in Djibouti and South Africa. Seedorf is most proud of helping to start a football league in his native Suriname involving 640 children from ages nine to 15.
“We’ve created a competition for them to be off the streets. But they have to go to school to be part of it,” he said.
“We want a manual and then apply it elsewhere in the world. We want a legacy, to leave something there for generations.”
Editing by Clare Fallon