Football: Kluivert drives out demons

Steve Tongue follows the fortunes of a striker of whom much is still expected; Final shots at fulfilment: The trying Dutchman and the Spanish conquistador head for France with recognition as their mission
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HE has wrestled with the same demons as Paul Gascoigne, both in his home country and in Italy, and has the big, bold headlines to prove it. The difference is that over the next five weeks, Patrick Kluivert will be given the chance to conquer them in front of the world. By doing so, the gifted young Dutch striker could not only further Holland's prospects of making an impression in France, but could rescue his own career with Milan.

As Johnny Metgod, once the puller of strings in the Tottenham and Nottingham Forest midfield, puts it: "This season in Italy has been disappointing for him compared to what he expected. It might have been influenced by his private life. But the way to make up for it is to do well in the World Cup."

A new coach, Alberto Zaccheroni, has arrived at the San Siro, and Kluivert has even more to prove to him than the other under-achievers responsible for such a dismal season - the second in succession which Milan finished in the bottom half of the table. Although Kluivert started in 26 of Milan's 34 league games, the more relevant statistics were that he finished only 12 and scored just six goals. One of those substitutions followed a prolonged argument on the touchline with some of the many disillusioned fans who had been hoping against hope that Fabio Capello had last summer signed the new Marco van Basten.

As a 12-year-old watching on television when his hero Van Basten graced the 1988 European Championship final with that famous volley against the Soviet Union, young Kluivert was already on the books of Ajax's incomparable football academy. At 18 he was in the first team and making his international debut.

By May 1995, still not 19, he had scored the only goal of the European Cup final against Milan, who were soon making plans to lure him away as soon as his contract was up.

Did it all come too easily? The following autumn Kluivert was involved in the first of two incidents that would stain his burgeoning reputation. Drunk in charge of a car in a fatal accident, he was initially sentenced to prison, subsequently commuted to a fine and 240 hours of community service. Yet with all that hanging over him, the teenager went out at Anfield and scored two brilliant goals as Holland beat the Republic of Ireland in a play-off for the remaining invitation to Euro 96.

It was an unhappy campaign, characterised by the in-fighting for which the Dutch are notorious, with Kluivert's Ajax team-mate Edgar Davids sent home amid claims that the squad was racially divided. Kluivert subsequently admitted he should not have been in England at all, so soon after a cartilage operation.

Holland had reason to be grateful. It was his late strike at Wembley, as a substitute, that carried them into the quarter-final on goal-difference despite the 4-1 drubbing by England. The reward was a place in the quarter-final against France at Anfield, which was lost on penalties.

After a final season of mixed fortunes at Ajax, the lucrative (pounds 17,000 per week) move to Milan got off to a bad start, when a night in an Amsterdam disco led to allegations that Kluivert had been involved in a gang-rape, at the same time as his girlfriend was in hospital waiting to give birth to their first child.

The case was dropped because of lack of evidence, and again Kluivert the footballer showed a remarkable ability to shut out all external controversies. As the Dutch nation debated whether - like Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Rio Ferdinand - he was fit to represent them on the football field, he scored the critical goal in a 3-1 World Cup victory over Belgium that in effect ensured qualification for France.

Now Belgium, the old enemy, lie in wait again, in Paris on Saturday night. Kluivert expects to be in the side, though Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink of Leeds United has made a good impression as his partner while Dennis Bergkamp tends his sore hamstring. Last Monday, Kluivert scored as Paraguay were routed 5-1 in Eindhoven and in Amsterdam on Friday scored two more as Nigeria felt the Orange force, again losing 5-1. It is a wonderful opportunity to drive out those demons. As Gascoigne, in his more sober moments, would surely acknowledge.