Marc Overmars left Ajax in disgrace. Six weeks later, a football club welcomed him back

Omar Souidi was watching Royal Antwerp lose at home to KV Mechelen in February when he realised urgent change was needed at the club where he acts as an external advisor.

In a grand meeting room at the offices of his legal firm to the south of the Belgian port city nearly six months later, the lawyer searches for a word that summarises what was lacking.

“Signature… identity…”

It had been that way at Antwerp for a while: “Too long.”

Amid claims the club’s recruitment strategy in the summer of 2021 had been ill-judged, Souidi believed it was mainly their Danish coach, Brian Priske, who was really struggling. Nothing seemed to join up.

The next morning, he spoke to Antwerp’s owner, Paul Gheysens. “I said to him, ‘Mr Gheysens, we should speak to Marc Overmars…’.”

A fortnight earlier, Souidi’s eyes were fixed on his television at home late on a Sunday night when a story broke about the person he was pushing Gheysens to hire.

Overmars had resigned from his position at Ajax, the biggest club in the neighbouring Netherlands, after sending a “series of inappropriate messages to several female colleagues”, according to a statement.

It soon became clear Overmars’ decision to leave the Amsterdam side — one he was allowed to make by the institution he had represented with distinction as a player and later as director of football affairs — was a pre-emptive move against a damning report in Dutch newspaper NRC, which revealed a culture of transgressive behaviour at the most famous football club in the country.

From afar, Souidi had been an admirer of Ajax and by extension an admirer of Overmars. He thinks Overmars achieved a “miracle” by designing a team who were able to come within moments of reaching the Champions League final in 2019, one who were able, in style, to knock out Real Madrid and Juventus during the knockout phase before stoppage-time heartbreak against Tottenham Hotspur.

He had never met Overmars. Yet Souidi, who runs an agency with the former Belgium defender Jelle Van Damme alongside his work as a barrister in the criminal and sports fields, has the sort of contact book that can make things happen fast. Before his death in April, the super-agent Mino Raiola had been one associate. He can call on Pavel Nedved, Juventus’ vice-president, for example.

“I thought it was interesting to talk with Marc,” says Souidi, despite the allegations made against the Dutchman.

One day after that game against Mechelen, Souidi was in a car bound for Epe, the town where Overmars lived, nearly 200km away. Gheysens and his son Michael, an Antwerp-based businessman, travelled separately.

“We wanted to check about the situation, according to Marc, and to see whether he was interested in coming to Antwerp.”

It had been Gheysens’ idea to bring just a small entourage. He did not want Overmars to feel overwhelmed. The conversation needed to be open. Only if Gheysens felt like he was getting the full story would he commission his son to move the conversation on to the next stage.

“Marc made a good impression,” says Souidi, who agreed with the other men from Antwerp that Overmars was not on the defensive.

Antwerp general manager Sven Jaecques and Overmars in March (Photo: Tom Goyvaerts/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

Gheysens returned to Belgium feeling like Overmars had been honest with him.

On March 21, within six weeks of leaving Ajax in disgrace, Overmars was back in football.

Ajax had been Overmars’ club.

Only in January, he had agreed a new contract to stay with them until 2026. The sign-on fee was more than £1million ($1.2m) but he had to repay that money after his abrupt exit.

Suddenly, he was out of work with his professional reputation in tatters and his personal life in a crisis. Souidi and Michael Gheysens would meet him “more than eight times” over the next fortnight, according to the former. Royal Antwerp would end up offering a big pay rise to lure him across the border.

Quietly, Gheysens senior had commissioned an agency to establish more of a picture about the individual he had just met. The subsequent report, according to NRC, suggested that no further nasty revelations were waiting around the corner.

Overmars was, meanwhile, at the centre of two other investigations.

One was led by Bezemer & Schubad, an external agency hired by Ajax. The other is still being carried out by the Dutch Institute for Sports Judiciary (ISR). It was later written into his contract that if it is discovered he has lied to Gheysens through either of those investigations, then his deal at Antwerp could be terminated with immediate effect.

In May, it was reported in the Netherlands that the ISR case had stalled because investigators were struggling to get Ajax and Overmars to cooperate. In the meantime, the findings from the club’s enquiry have largely stayed hidden, with Ajax deciding not to disclose in full what it has found.

So far, the only official correspondence on the matter since Overmars’ departure has been a short press release in May, which confirmed “the serious nature” of their former employee’s behaviour, one that recognised women feared making complaints because of potential repercussions.

“A number of women within Ajax have been confronted with undesirable behaviour,” the statement read. “This ranges from bad jokes and derogatory or hurtful comments to an unwanted arm around the shoulder and other intrusive behaviour.”

Nobody at Royal Antwerp, indeed, is willing to detail precisely what Overmars said that day in Epe, so it is unclear whether the story tallies with what has appeared in the Dutch press: that he’d shuffle over to female staff at their desks and compliment their appearance, asking to go for a drink or for their mobile number — supposedly for professional consideration. Some would receive “dick pics” via WhatsApp, sent from a toilet in the club’s offices.

His approach has been compared to a stalker.

Given the women, as it has been confirmed by Bezemer & Schubad, felt like they had nowhere to go with their concerns, Overmars was able to continue acting this way for a long time.

He had worked as a director at Ajax for almost a decade. Last month, the Ajax women’s team manager Daphne Koster told a documentary she and some of her colleagues knew Overmars had sent inappropriate messages but no one dared to sound the alarm because of a culture of fear that prevailed within the club.

Koster had represented Ajax as a player between 2012 and 2017 and this was the period she was talking about to the makers of On the Way to the Top.

“You don’t say anything about it because you know, it is the TD (technical director) and you can’t substantiate it,” she said. “You enter an environment in which many people already say: ‘What are these women doing here?’.

“Then you also know: if you are going to raise this, the easiest thing to do is to get out…

“There is a fear of reporting it because then you will be out. That ensures that something like this can thrive in an organisation.“

Souidi has been an Antwerp supporter since 1989. His father was a trumpeter who performed before home games. Souidi calls it “love at first sight”. He says he has barely missed a fixture since — even through 13 years of toil in the second division, when it regularly seemed as though the team had another relegation in them.

When the Gheysens family started investing in 2017, the mood changed quickly. Antwerp is the oldest club in Belgium and Paul Gheysens’ fortune from construction increased possibilities overnight. One of the first things he did was speak to fans with an understanding of the club’s idiosyncrasies. Souidi’s name came up via a board member. They began to talk, and a respect was formed.

Souidi has since operated as an external advisor to the board — he does not speak on behalf of it. He had a good relationship with Overmars’ predecessor Luciano D’Onofrio and he was influential in the signing of Radja Nainggolan, formerly of Roma and Inter Milan.

D’Onofrio was another controversial figure having previously been convicted of fraud. When he was fired last summer, Antwerp’s CEO Sven Jaecques became involved in transfers. Jaecques was still in his 30s and though he worked very hard, it was felt the club needed a new director of football affairs. External advisors like Souidi became even more prominent.

The recruitment of Nainggolan was a big moment. Previously, veteran Belgian players would return home and join Anderlecht, Club Bruges or Standard Liege. The signing of Nainggolan changed that flow. In July, Toby Alderweireld, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur, became the club’s new captain after a year in Qatar with Al-Duhail.

The defender, however, had been close to returning to his home city last summer. Though he agreed personal terms with the club, Antwerp and Spurs were not on the same page financially. Therefore, it would be wrong to suggest the recruitment of Overmars has opened all doors since his arrival.

After his appointment in March, some windows slammed shut. Sponsors pulled away, though Gheysens reacted by suggesting at least two of them were trying to find a way out from their contracts because they were already struggling to meet commitments.

The recruitment agency Select Group wrote in a statement: “The choice to appoint Mr Overmars, who was recently accused of repeated transgressive behaviour and against whom an independent investigation is currently under way in the Netherlands, goes directly against the values and standards of our society.”

At his introductory press conference, Overmars offered a confession: “What I did at Ajax will not happen again,” he said. The organisation of this event annoyed Dutch journalists because of its short notice — meaning no one was able to travel from the Netherlands in time and ask questions. There remains a feeling within the Dutch corps that this was done purposely. Though some Belgian journalists agree, they also believe the club underestimated the reaction from the Belgian press.

Souidi says Gheysens is extremely intelligent and is not the type of guy to underestimate public feeling. As a criminal lawyer, Souidi believes in second chances — it is part of his job to talk with people accused of something before forming an impression of what really happened.

“I do not believe in cancel culture,” he says. “If I want to listen to the music of Michael Jackson, I do not think that because he is accused of horrible things that I can’t enjoy his music any more. It’s very dangerous how cancel culture goes to the extreme. Roman Polanski might be more than immoral but I enjoy his movies.”

Surely Antwerp should have waited for the results of the two investigations Overmars is facing before offering his second chance? Souidi says other European clubs, without naming them, wanted to hire him and this alone prompted their move rather than opportunism.

Souidi has defended Antwerp’s decision to hire Overmars before the outcome of investigations into his behaviour was known (Photo: Getty Images)

He says: “None of the women filed a police complaint and the question I ask myself is, if someone makes a mistake, how long does that guy have to stay on the bench? Does it change their situation if he finds a new job? Or is it so important that he doesn’t work for years — or ever again?”

While it is true that not a single woman has filed a police complaint, they have reported it and this shows they are troubled by what Overmars did.

Souidi concedes that maybe he’s worked as a criminal lawyer for too long (he qualified in 2008) to realise how lots of people see the appointment.

In their haste, Antwerp did not consult any female member of staff before making the appointment. Jaecques, the CEO, tried to explain “initially it was important to get this right and to work it out among ourselves”.

This led to an apology through a press release, where the club made a commitment to deal appropriately with any “unacceptable behaviour” in the workplace.

In March, Imke Courtois, the former Belgian footballer, responded: “I think that man (Overmars) needs a few months to work on himself.”

Yet it was not even two months after leaving Amsterdam that Overmars had a new job in a neighbouring country.

Since relocating from Epe to Antwerp, where he sometimes dines in the city’s restaurants with Souidi, the lawyer has seen his “signature” at the club.

“I consider Marc to be Champions League in what he does. He is so gifted. He only needs to look at one game to give an analysis. For some football connoisseurs, it takes weeks to reach a conclusion.”

“I’ve got to know him well and Marc is not a monster,” Souidi insists. “He’s a human being and football is his life. Sitting at home in Epe every day, in my view, was not a solution.”

In Antwerp, you can pay a euro for the organ to play at Cafe Beveren — a folksy saloon that clings to the Scheldt river and its huge docks, the second biggest in Europe.

Just inland, there is an enormous cathedral surrounded by restaurants and bars — lots of them.

Beyond the train station, there is the Jewish quarter and beyond that, a multicultural sprawl where you can eat food from any continent on the planet.

Finally, via tram, you reach Deurne — where the city’s airport is bounded by low-rise housing estates.

The district’s most famous tavern is called the Great Old, a nickname taken from Royal Antwerp — the longest established football club in Belgium.

And there, on the edge of town, is the Bosuilstadion: part futuristic, part relic, a venue that shines up in bright red lights on one side and is condemned on the other.

Hans Bressinck is the sort of guy everyone knows. As he drinks lager from a plastic glass outside the Great Old, he is interrupted by other men who follow Royal Antwerp home and away.

Three days earlier, he had been in Kosovo watching his team progress in the European Conference League. Two days after Antwerp’s first home game of the season with Zulte Waregem, he will travel to Lillestrom for the first leg of the next round.

When Antwerp played Ludogorets in Bulgaria amid strict COVID-19 restrictions, he found a way in by pretending to be an Erasmus student. His job affords him 43 days annual leave. “All of them are used following Antwerp.”

It hasn’t always been this easy following his passion. He remembers a game against Mons, two years before the club earned promotion to the top flight in 2017. It was going to be his last. “I wasn’t alone… the club was broke. Lots of people inside the stadium were only there to say goodbye.”

Antwerp’s striker Nico Binst had trained as a plumber. In those days, his team-mates were only able to clean in warm showers because he’d repaired them. Everything changed because of Gheysens, who has since paid for the ground renovation and for star players like Nainggolan.

Antwerp have not won a title since 1957 but there is a feeling they might this season (they finished fourth in 2021-22). Given the new possibilities because of Gheysens’ investment, it might be tempting to think fans accept all of his decisions.

Bressinck, though, is uncomfortable with the commercialisation of the club. He says there was scepticism when Overmars arrived. Yet quickly, that was overtaken by a sense of defiance because of all of the criticism that came the club’s way from the media and other fans.

Following his appointment, Antwerp fans played around with a huge inflatable penis on the terrace ahead of a game against OH Leuven. A banner read: “Welcome across the border, Marc.”

Bressinck is one of the panellists on the Square Post podcast broadcast by his friend, Bob Dejongh, who tries to rationalise Antwerp’s relationship with Overmars like this: “What he did was wrong,” Dejongh says. “But in modern football, there are so many things you can condemn. He is just one person in a corrupt world.”

Dejongh adds that Overmars has not been accused of a crime as severe as rape and football has a history of allowing rapists back into the game. In the same month Overmars was allowed to walk away from Ajax, Belgian club Gent fired Ilombe Mboyo after he was accused of domestic violence, which he denied. The striker had been convicted as a 17-year-old for the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl but prison did not prove to be a barrier for the scouts of Charleroi.

Mboyo’s crime has affected his job — both West Ham United and Charlton Athletic decided not to sign him after pressure from fans. Yet it did not stop him having a career and it did not stop bigger clubs trying to recruit him before pushback.

At 35, Mboyo, twice capped by Belgium, has represented seven top-flight teams. Two more and he would have played for nearly half of the Jupiler League. What, then, does that say about Belgian football? That it gives chances to criminals that have served their time? Certainly, such a possibility increases if that person is capable of scoring goals.

Bressinck and Dejongh agree that Overmars would have been way out of reach for the club they love if he was still employed by Ajax. The accusations against him have been easier to ignore because he barely speaks publicly and the rest of the country has paid less attention to his presence since March because of other scandals.

Two days after his appointment, the city of Antwerp faced the start of a trial for violence and sexual harassment brought by eleven dancers against the famous artist and choreographer Jan Fabre. While Fabre would face an 18-month suspended prison sentence, Overmars has been able to continue his career because he isn’t threatened by legal scrutiny and this has allowed him to quietly begin the process of building a new empire away from the sharpest glare.

Like Souidi, he decided that it was time to move on from Brian Priske, Antwerp’s manager. Though Souidi advocated Andrea Pirlo as his replacement, Overmars went for Mark van Bommel — his former international team-mate.

It was an appointment that proved high-profile figures in Dutch football are still prepared to work with him.

A couple of hours up the road, Overmars remains in Amsterdam. At least, he does in the form of a black and white photograph in the lobby at the Johan Cruijff ArenA.

There, he is pictured with his arm around John Heitinga, the club’s former defender, long before he launched his own professional career, one which has led to him as the coach of Jong Ajax, the club’s second team.

They are standing pitch-side at De Meer, where Ajax used to play — a venue that Overmars might be reminded of whenever he looks across the Bosuilstadion, which remains compact and intimate despite its partial redevelopment.

In terms of personnel, a lot has changed at Ajax since Overmars’ leaving. Compare the starting XI who lost 5-3 to PSV Eindhoven in the Johan Cruijff Schaal on the last weekend of July to the team who lost to the same opponent in the Dutch cup final four months earlier: only five players remain and the average age had dropped by more than four years, from 26.9 to 22.7.

That is the thing with Ajax, the club always promises a brighter future because of its nature and the world around it. It dominates Dutch football, occasionally does well in Europe, and sells what it has before replenishing with exciting alternatives.

This goes for the coaches as well. In 2019, Erik ten Hag took Ajax to the semi-finals of the Champions League. He had been close to Overmars but his departure to Manchester United drew a thick line under the former director of football’s era.

Tamara, an Ajax fan whom The Athletic interviewed in February, thinks this has helped a lot of people ignore a cloud that still hangs over the club.

Two months before the revelations about Overmars, the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf convinced him to do an interview beside Ten Hag, where the pair spoke together about their connection for the first time.

“…it does feel like more than a working relationship between us,” said Overmars, who Ten Hag felt protected by because he was able to remove a lot of the noise around the club (from players and their agents particularly), giving him the optimal conditions to perform.

“I do not have to look back, because I know that he is there,” explained Ten Hag, who revealed that he had lunch at the club’s De Toekomst training ground with Overmars every day.

Ten Hag, however, says he was unaware of the transgressive culture at Ajax. Initially, he said the right things about the resignation of his friend but as the months passed, his attitude softened.

Ten Hag said he did not know of Overmars’ behaviour at Ajax (Photo: Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images)

When Ajax clinched the Eredivisie title, he congratulated his former colleague for his role in the achievement before describing the suggestion that he could return to the club one day as “romantic”, albeit possible.

Ten Hag denied that Ajax was an “unfriendly” club for women but Tamara, who has supported Ajax across three decades, says she’d be reluctant to seek employment at a place that allowed a senior employee to walk away from a job despite the nature of the claims against him and is yet to respond with transparency about what really happened.

“Ajax has to reach the point where women feel like its normal to come forward about a problem, rather than when there is a demand for it because the club is under fire,” says Tamara, who hasn’t attended a game since February.

“Sometimes I will speak to my dad and we’ll talk about going and I forget about what has happened. That, I think, is what they want to happen…”

Tamara is not alone in thinking Ajax’s handling of Overmars’ departure, along with Antwerp’s hire of him so quickly, shows that football is not taking transgressive behaviour seriously enough and she wonders where this leads. “They are sending the signal to other sectors that football is above it. You can say that sexism is a part of society but the game has the power to change what happens around it by doing the right thing.”

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like