ADO Den Haag CEO on 'right decision' to scrap relegation and Dutch club's fight for survival

Mohammed Hamdi talks to The National about the decision 'causing an explosion in the whole of the Netherlands' as well as how the club face financial ruin unless football returns by September

Mohammed Hamdi, chief executive at ADO Den Haag,. Credit: ADO Den Haag.
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If ADO Den Haag found solace in a controversial reprieve last Friday, their relief was short-lived.

A decision taken by the Dutch Football Association (KNVB) to annul the 2019/20 season - no promotion, relegation or champions - had spared the club from possible relegation from the Eredivisie, at the same time "causing an explosion in the whole of the Netherlands".

Henk de Jong, the head coach of Cambuur, the club who led the second division and had almost certain promotion snatched from them, labelled it the “biggest disgrace in the history of Dutch sport”. Neither Cambuur, nor second-placed De Graafschap, would go up.

ADO had survived, despite sitting second-last in the 18-team Eredivisie when the league stopped on March 12 because of the coronavirus. With eight rounds remaining, Alan Pardew’s team were seven points from safety, with one victory in 15 league matches.

Then came Friday’s surprise announcement.

No matter the contention, ADO feel the call was correct, citing that a significant chunk of the campaign was still to play out.

"For me, if someone is telling you that you still have a 25 per cent chance to make it, that's a big enough percentage to fight for it," ADO chief executive, Mohammed Hamdi, tells The National. "So I think it's the right decision not to have relegation. I'm 100 per cent agreed.

“But I think it was better to allow Cambuur and Graafschap into the Eredivisie and then we have one year with 20 teams instead of 18. That was a better solution. But it was considered too big a sacrifice for the second division.”

Hamdi recognises his agreement with the decision is predictable. The KNVB had put the season’s fate to a vote among the 34 clubs that comprise the top two divisions: 16 voted for promotion and relegation, nine voted against, nine abstained. With no majority, the KNVB took the decision themselves.

“Of course, people will say ADO Den Haag is satisfied at the moment,” Hamdi says. “But we need always to rethink: why is the situation like this? And then you have to see that we’ve all nothing to do with this crisis. This coronavirus has made our life miserable and that’s why we cannot play the matches as we need to do.

“So you cannot punish ADO Den Haag for the reason that there are still eight games left, because the coronavirus is at this moment the biggest issue in the world.

“It’s a really difficult situation, also a difficult position for the Football Association. I think they tried to make a wise decision, because you cannot punish teams by relegating them so early in the league.

“Now you have even the mayor of Doetinchem, where Graafschap are from, saying it’s totally unfair. It’s caused an explosion in the whole of the Netherlands – everyone is speaking about it.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock (10530307f)
Supporters display a banner
ADO Den Haag v RKC Waalwijk, Eredivisie, Football, Kyocera Stadium, The Hague, Netherlands - 19 Jan 2020
ADO Den Haag supporters display a banner during the Eredivisie match against RKC Waalwijk at Kyocera Stadium, The Hague, Netherlands, on Januaary 19, 2020. Shutterstock

Hamdi says the fallout would have been tempered somewhat had the KNVB discussed “Scenario 3” - annulling the league - from the outset last month. Yet it wasn’t broached until last week, after the Dutch prime minister announced that there would be no football in the country until September 1 at least, whipping the storm that followed.

Cambuur and Graafschap have declared they will appeal the decision, and go to court if necessary; even FC Utrecht, who were set to contest the cup final for a place in next season’s Europa League, appear poised to take their case to Uefa.

For ADO, though, the problems extend far beyond that. Waiting since last month to discover which league they would contest next season, they are still unable to plan their budget. Although September 1 has been given as a date for resumption, there is uncertainty surrounding supporters being allowed to attend football matches. Some medical experts have suggested crowds will not be permitted until Christmas.

Should that happen, ADO expect to lose up to €10 million (Dh40m) in income, the majority of which from match-day revenue, some from television revenue.

Owned by Chinese-based United Vansen Sport, who are also feeling the pinch of the pandemic, ADO simply wouldn’t sustain.

“No way,” Hamdi says. “If the club doesn’t get support from the government, the Dutch FA and the Chinese ownership, it is impossible.

“That’s why when the decision was made last Friday I said please make sure all 18 clubs can start the league in September, at least to go without having financial problems or going into bankruptcy. Because that is seriously the case right now.”

As of now, ADO have not had to let go any of their 120 employees, but with Monday’s King’s Day celebrations concluded, Hamdi concedes a succession of difficult decisions will have to be negotiated.

“That’s what makes it so tough,” he says. “It’s people’s lives.”

The impact will be felt by the players, who can resume training as long as they adhere to social distancing. Pardew, meanwhile, on Tuesday left his position as manager by mutual consent after five months in charge.

Salary reductions will have to be considered, while since the transfer market sure to be hit hard globally, the club will seek to promote from the youth team.

Like many others, ADO are having to navigate football’s new terrain.

“We’re transparent in our communications and that’s the most important thing in this period: that you are transparent towards your players,” Hamdi says. “So we’re telling the players in a respectful way this is the budget at the moment, this is what the club is suffering, and this is the expectation for the upcoming period, so they know what we’re talking about.

“If we want to at least survive, everyone needs to sacrifice salary income for the sake of the club.”

If we want to at least survive, everyone needs to sacrifice salary income for the sake of the club

Hamdi anticipates clubs throughout football will encounter similar issues. He cites Ed Woodward's recent interview, in which the Manchester United executive vice-chairman warned clubs won't be in a position to spend heavily in the upcoming transfer window.

Asked if football will emerge from the crisis intact, Hamdi says: “To be honest, I have my doubts. And we need to be aware that a second phase of the coronavirus is something that’s really possible. As long as we don’t have the medicine for it, I’m afraid the coronavirus will stay with us.

“And this is a really concerning thought, which will most importantly affect lives, but also have a huge impact on the football world. All the transfer fees that were normally paid will be a lot less.”

To follow, Hamdi isn't sure if the KNVB decision will set a precedent for the rest of Europe, although he doubts the major leagues can go ahead this summer, as has been mooted. On Tuesday night, the French government announced the Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 seasons would not resume.

“Maybe they’ll try to play a match, but I think it’ll still be cancelled,” Hamdi says. “Everyone needs tested, and that’s a maximum 300-400 people in the stadium, to minimise chances of coronavirus.

“I think they’ll do their utmost best, but still it will not be realistic. I don’t think it’s safe enough.”

For now, however, ADO’s safety, well beyond this season, forms his sole focus.

“The next step is trying to minimise the financial damaging of the club,” Hamdi says. “We need to think carefully how we’re going to have fewer costs in the upcoming four-five months.

“Which means you need to speak with all your colleagues, partners, stakeholders to see how they’re going to help achieve that. That will be the most important task, but also at the same time, the most difficult.

“And I will tell you something: there is no CEO in the world now to ever manage this kind of crisis. There are also no books - you cannot open one to see this is how to handle this as a football club.

“You can have a benchmark, by discussions with other clubs. This is what I’m doing: talking to clubs from Germany, from Spain, people all over the world, just to see how they’re going to try to manage it.

“It needs to be a collective approach. But no one really has the medicine in hand to handle this crisis. That makes it even more complicated.”