We’re smack in the middle of one of those generation gaps. It happens with smaller football nations. Belgium’s gaps are longer than their peaks. Denmark had a trough but seems to be coming back. Hungary is been missing in action for 50 years. We have had them before. Right after the 1970s golden years was the biggest one of course. NT coach Danny Blind did not pick an easy road. After two World Cup top 4 spots and the Golden Four entering their autumn (Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie) and winter stages (Van der Vaart),
We discuss our current top players (a utility player of Liverpool, a box to box player at Swansea, a make shift center back at Watford, a bench warmer at Man United, an inconsistent right back at Feyenoord) and even throw some players in the mix who hardly played a handful of top flight games for their Euro sub top club (Nouri, Diks).
Robben and Sneijder are the two old hands who help Blind carry the load. Robin van Persie should be the third world class player to return to the fold, in my honest opinion. He’s been in the cold for a couple of seasons now, but Robin is back. Fighting fit and motivated. His story…
Currently, Robin van Persie (33)is in his best period in years, as the Fenerbahce striker. Blind still doesn’t give him a look in at Oranje. Robin’s views… “The team manager makes the decisions. Not me. It’s that simple. But, the team is in transition and why wouldn’t I be able to help?”
His wide open mouth, the near insane look in his eyes. These images are still everywhere in Istanbul. On the front pages, posters and Turkish tv. Even in commercials. Robin van Persie, wild with joy, scoring against arch rival Galatasaray (2-0).
Even now, weeks later, this is still the topic that matters. “Oh man! The joy I felt. It was a serious explosion. Everything tried to get out. Literally, everything. I needed that!”
Robin van Persie clenches his fist when he says this, in the relax room of the Fener training complex, in the Asian part of town. Historical black and white pics on the wall. “A few days before the match I visited a Turkish friend, and he told me: as long as you haven’t scored against Gala, you are not really a Fener player.” And he meant it. All supporters think like this. You can play well, you can score a lot, all well and good, but what really counts here is being the decider of the derby.”
And we see it a day later in the Sukru stadium, when Van Persie plays versus Besiktas (0-0). His difficult first season at the club, it hasn’t had any negative influence on his popularity with the Blue-Yellow fans. He is the first player they cheer and call to the fan-zone behind the goal for a crazy cheering ritual. An ear deafening roar comes into the stadium. Dick Advocaat: “Robin is the most popular player here. But, that already was the case before the Gala match.”
Advocaat has said it before. His striker is top fit, fresh in his head and pretty darn good. Against his old club Feyenoord, Van Persie didn’t shine but he played a solid role in service of the team. And in mid week games, his coach tends to rest the old fox. He’s not 22 anymore but he is the number one striker for Fenerbahce. His statistics are clear in the months October and November. The player starts to look more and more like his old self.
“Fun, just pure fun! Fun in playing, the matches, the practices. Carefully prepared passing and finishing practices. Sharp games. Even a good warming up is something to cherish. When expectations are high, I can perform at my best. I missed that drive, to be honest with you. Last season was no fun. My last season at Man United wasn’t great either. It was a struggle in many ways. And you only notice this when the joy is back. That gives you a mental boost. It’s liberating and I think it also affects your physical strength and fitness.”
You were presented as a super signing, but you couldn’t deliver on that promise. At all.
“I know what you mean. Things didn’t go the way I wanted it. There were several factors at play. I personally think the “he is not fit” element wasn’t even that big a thing. The media and the outside world made that more important. There were other things too. I am not the kind to look back in anger and say nasty things about people, but lets just say that things turned around very positively when Dick Advocaat came. However, I did score 22 goals last season, so it wasn’t that big a drama I don’t think.”
How was Advocaat turning things around?
“He makes the difference, with Cor Pot and Mario Been. The way we train, the way we play, the discipline in and off the pitch, the clarity in the vision. We had a good meeting, when Dick came in and he was honest, sharp and critical. He said “I have high expectations of you. I want you to carry the team, to lead”. I enjoy that Dutch directness. That is what we need.”
You did have a personal trainer working with you for months. He even lived with the family. Did that work?
“For sure! I needed to do more in that period. I felt that, but I couldn’t fit it into the usual practice sessions. I have now ended those personal sessions but it has strengthened my foundation, that is what it is. The last percentages of progress I booked through playing matches.”
When Dick Advocaat came in August, he was sceptical about the striker. Again, Robin was injured. The former Zenit and Sunderland coach wanted to see what Robin could do. Advocaat: “I had my doubts yes. No team can carry a player who can’t reach a certain level anymore. Not in the big games. But, when you saw his fitness return, you could easily see what an incredible player he still is.”
Still, a return to Oranje is not happening. When Vincent Janssen and Luuk de Jong demonstrated to lack form and rhythm, against Belgium and Luxembourg, Blind still didn’t make that call. Dick Advocaat decides to pass on this topic. “It’s sensitive in any situation for a coach to make a comment about that, but I assisted Danny for a spell so it’s not appropriate for me to comment. But, I am happy that I don’t need to make those decisions.”
Van Persie takes a breath and moves around a bit when the subject is broached. “I want to pick my words properly but I don’t want to beat around the bush. But, for starters, it’s the coach’ decision. That is how it works. But, I think I have earned the right to say something about it, based on my history with Oranje? And why wouldn’t I be able to give my viewpoint?”
And how do you see it?
“When I see Vincent Janssen play, I can see he is a good striker. For real. He’s got the intuition, the work ethics, he has courage and confidence. But, I can also see little things in his game that can improve. It’s details, I know, but I am sure I can help him. This is how Ruud van Nistelrooy worked with me. Obviously, Vincent needs to be open to it, but I’ve played eleven seasons in the EPL and scored a couple of goals for Oranje so I think I can help in this process. Obviously, it’s weird to be saying this knowing that Luuk de Jong and Bas Dost will not be too happy with me talking myself into the squad… I do respect them as players as well.”
Could you live with a role as second striker?
“I probably couldn’t four years ago, haha, but when things are made clear and there is communication and the first striker is the man in form and better than, why not? And you can make decisions based on the game at hand. I can play in four roles upfront. Here at Fener I play the #10 role as well at times. If there is a will, we can find a way. And I’m no fool! I know the generation Sneijder/Robben/Van Persie/Van der Vaart is phasing out. That is only natural. The Dutch NT is in a transformation stage and Janssen might well be the striker for the next ten years. But that will not happen within a day or week or month. Why wouldn’t I be able to support that process?”
It seems that Blind doesn’t recognise this role in you?
“It’s quite possible we don’t have a click personally. And that’s ok. But I do hope the professional will win against the personal. It’s not about him or me. It’s about Oranje. That is the main thing.”
Things happened between you and Memphis on the training pitch, among other things. Could the past play a role?
“I don’t know. I can be quite direct, I know. But in some case it is needed. It’s part of top sports. If you want to be top and perform to the max, you need to be able to tell each other your truth. And a clash, sharp, head to head, it’s ok. It’s not always a bad thing. And then you need to be able to let it go. I actually saw Memphis at Man United some time back and asked him: Memphis, you still pissed off at me. And he said no. So that’s it. Done. And I have always put a lot of energy in young players. I love that. Talking, helping, feel free to ask them.”
Can you imagine Blind might think: Van Persie in a secondary role, that’s not going to work?
“No idea. He might think that. But, it’s a matter of management, isn’t it? That is important in being a coach, apart from coaching. It’s managing the personalities in a team. I scored twice against Gala, but for the next game against Zorya, three days later, Advocaat told me: you won’t play. And I said: What? I feel great. I want to play! But Advocaat said he felt the next competition game was more important. End of story. And that’s cool. It’s clear and open and honest. I’m now 33 years old. I’m starting to wisen up a bit.”
But in all seriousness, the last couple of years, the coaches of Oranje would not have a lot of reason to select you. You didn’t play great and you weren’t fit
“I hear what you say. I sort of lost the fun in the game. And I have to blame myself for this. But not every period is the same. People will say I am biased, but I did have some good periods as well.”
Like right before this last international break, for the Luxembourg and Belgium games?
“Yes exactly. And I do get Oranje is in a process and Blind is looking for consistency and all that. You want to grow and develop towards the World Cup. That is the way to do it, but at the same time, football is also today. Now. You need to get results now as well.”
Did Blind ever call you or ask you about this other role in the squad?
“No he didn’t and to be honest, that puzzles me a bit. I mean, if he doesn’t want to select me, fine. That is his prerogative. He is the coach. But Danny worked with me in his time as assistant of Van Gaal and I think we worked well together. We’ve known each other for years. Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone and talk about it? You don’t have to go with my ideas, but why not talk about it? I can be a reasonable guy, hahaha.”
And if Blind calls tomorrow, would you come? Or would you want a firm meeting before deciding?
“I always maintained, that playing for your country is a true and huge honour. I don’t have any reason to view that differently now. That talk will come anyway. But I will never say no to Oranje. It’s too valuable for me.”
Van Persie played 101 caps for Holland. When a player reaches 100 games, he usually is presented with a beautiful scale. The KNVB decided to simply mail the thing out in October, using regular post, to Instanbul. No one at the KNVB took the trouble to visit him, take him out to dinner… Or invite him as guest to an Oranje game. Van Persie had himself and wife Bouchra photographed with the thing, sitting on his sofa, with a grin on his face. And what a contrast with the welcome he received at Old Trafford or in De Kuip last Thursday. He was subbed in the 75th minute and received a tremendous applause. In Manchester, he even got a standing ovation when he scored against Man United. “Those were goosebumps moments. Really, the warmth and respect in England. The moment I got off the plane in Manchester I felt it. It was great. We lived there quite a while and I feel good in England.”
But the pics on Twitter of you with that KNVB scale? That was a subtle statement? We are not that good in Holland in honouring our top athletes.
“But I do feel the respect and acknowledgement from the Dutch fans. Of course, receiving this in a stadium, with fans in the stands is much more fun and valuable, but that chance might come one day. I am proud anyway.”
In Turkey, the adoration goes beyond what we believe to be normal. Have you gotten used to that?
“We really enjoy life here. The people, the city, life in general. We feel at home and the kids too. I think I’ve become a bit of a Turk myself. I love Tavla, a sort of Turkish backgammon game. Amazing game. And I bought a special table for it, hahaha. My Turkish team mates love it too. But I can win against them now, so they don’t enjoy it too much anymore.”
And do you feel safe here? A lot has happened recently, with even a political coup?
“True, and people do talk about this. We do feel connected to the nation and we try to follow the news. We talk to people about it. Bouchra is always busy helping asylum kids from Syria, with other players wives. A lot is going on in the world, not just here. It’s frightening at times. Sure. And we do see security as a big theme. We will take that into account when we take our next step.”
Do you feel safe here?
“Yes I do. The last months are quiet. Istanbul is not unstable but listen, we are privileged. 99% of the other people have bigger worries than we. I’m a well payed player, I live in a beautiful home in a secure compound. I don’t think we would be the first to complain about feeling unsafe.”
(Note JR: and just this morning the news broke of a bomb exploding at Istanbul train station 🙁 )
Life was different last August. You weren’t happy with coach Pereira, there was the coup, I’m sure you must have considered leaving?
“We discussed all options, yes. And there were opportunities to consider and good offers. And we weighed everything, the football, family, security, etc. In that stage, only Wesley was here in Istanbul, as a Dutchman. But within weeks, we saw Nigel de Jong at Gala, Jan Olde Riekerink was here of course. Van der Wiel came to Fener, then Hoek as keeper trainer at Gala. Dick came here with Cor and Mario and then Lens showed up to play here. Really incredible. It all happened so quick and fell into place.”
So if Advocaat wouldn’t have come, would you be playing elsewhere?
“Hard to say, but it was a big factor in my decision. And pretty soon it all clicked. And I started to feel good and settled. I think I was fortunate that it all went as it went.