The International Herald Tribune
Farewell to the tranquil captain
By Rob Hughes
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
When Lei Clijsters died, the headline that bounced around the world networks was: "Father of Kim Clijsters dies at 52."
He deserves more than that. "Leo" Clijsters certainly was the proud papa who managed the careers of his daughters, the former tennis No. 1, Kim Clijsters, and her sister, Elke. But it is disingenuous to leave the impression of him as a tennis father.
First and foremost, Clijsters was a soccer player who led a modest club, Mechelen, to the last major European trophy any Belgian team has won in 20 years. He was a defender, a libero, in his nation's finest soccer hours, its World Cup semifinal in 1986 and the World Cup second round in 1990.
"He brought tranquillity to the field," Bruno Versavel, a younger teammate said Monday. "He was like a protective father to me when I came into the team. We roomed together, and he taught me at times when to be modest."
Modest, tranquil, private - yet visibly proud, competitive, communicative in action. During the 1990 World Cup, he stepped out of character to score Belgium's first goal against Uruguay in Verona - a bullet of a header - and it said much about him that the two other scorers, Enzo Scifo and Jan Ceulemans, followed his lead.
Scifo was world class, Ceulemans nearly so, yet they and Belgium's renowned goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff and gifted individuals like Franky Vercauteren and René Vandereycken were only there to applaud when, in 1988, Clijsters received the Gouden Schoen, the Golden Shoe, as his country's most accomplished player.
He was in his prime, the embodiment of the Mechelen team that captured the Belgium cup in 1987, the European Cup Winners Cup and the European Supercup in 1988, and then the Belgian league title in 1989.
Aad de Mos, the Dutchman who coached that Mechelen team and built its style around Clijsters' unfailing dependability, spoke this week of knowing for a year that his former captain had terminal lung cancer, yet being caught unprepared to lose him now.
"On and off the pitch," said the coach, "Lei was a model example in professionalism. He never smoked or went drinking."
"I have rarely known a player so strong in one-against-one situations, or a man of greater personality on the pitch," he said.
That, however, describes only the football man. Clijsters was also the head of a family extraordinary in the world of sports and in its confrontation with triumph and tragedy.
Even as he was interviewed on Belgian national television before his Golden Shoe ceremony, the family came into it. His wife, Els, whom he met as the national artistic gymnastic champion Els Vandecaetsbeek, was later to defy cancer with the help of a liver transplant and the chemotherapy that Clijsters would refuse in his final year.
And Kim, the elder daughter, then almost 5, was playing around the father as he was interviewed. When Lei Clijsters was asked what present he might give his energetic daughter to celebrate his award, he said he might build her a clay court because she loved tennis.
He did, in the backyard of their home in Belgium.
The rest, as they say, is history. The ex-soccer pro gave up team management to manage his daughters' careers. Not that he was their coach, or the typical tennis parent living through their precocious child's talents; Clijsters was the father-protector, ever watchful for the prying press, ever aware of the physical stresses that threatened his eldest girl, with her ferocious forehand and consequent wrist and ankle ligament problems, and his youngest, whose fine prospects as a junior champion came to a halt, as did her mother's gymnastic career, through back injury.
Kim Clijsters was to earn $14.7 million in prize money alone and to win the U.S. Open championship before calling it a day at 24. She mused with reporters about inheriting her power and perseverance and her thigh muscles, from her father; not the legs, she said, for a fashion model, but perfect for tennis. And the suppleness, she reasoned, came from her mother.
What struck people time and again about Kim Clijsters was her sense of perspective, sense of family and her ability to take success or failure as they came. When the daughter told media conferences that she had gone through enough things to realize that there are tragedies worst than losing a tennis match, you could almost hear the father talking.
When, in 2005, her parents divorced just before the French Open, Clijsters answered the questions from the media. "It's life," she said, "even with famous people. I try to make the best out of every situation."
And when she quit tennis at 24 to marry Brian Lynch, an American basketball player, Kim signaled her father's return to his first sport, soccer. He briefly became a coach again, to a team in the Belgian third division, before cancer took hold.
In that final year, he became a blogger. His style was that of the players in his family, no-nonsense, hard at 'em, get to the point. He used satire on his pet hates, the paparazzi who prey on private lives.
In his columns, he attacked the pettiness of officialdom, the organizations instructing referees to issue a confetti of yellow cards. "You give a reproachful word, or a look to a referee today," he wrote, "and it's a yellow card under your nose! You take off your shirt to offer emotion to the fans, a yellow card!"
The blog also informed the world that Kim's life was about to be blessed with the one thing she - and he - dreamed of, a daughter for her, a grandchild for him. "If everything goes well," he wrote, "then Kim will become a mother next year and me a grandfather. Yippee!"
The cancer had already taken hold, but he saw the child, Jada, born in February last year. I looked, but didn't find confirmation that Granddad Clijsters was already contemplating what his new extension to the family might become.
But then his writings ceased. The cremation will be private, the daughters asking for the tranquillity that players around him say he gave them in the heat of action.
Mechelen's supporters' federation, on their Web site, paid the fitting tribute. A picture of Lei Clijsters holding the biggest trophy in the club's history, and the epitaph: "Vaarwel Kapitein."
Copyright © 2009 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com