For a long time, we lamented the retirement of the likes of Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt, Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, fearing the good old times would never return. But with players back at top level at Liverpool, Olympique Lyon and Barca and a series of great talents coming through, we almost forget about them now. Even though De Ligt’s and Frenkie’s values would have plummeted after some heavy naive defending vs Bayern Munich (What was Frenkie thinking??), Oranje’s future looks bright. So despite the new series we started – Future Stars – we also applaude the giants on whose shoulders these stars will stand…
Rafa van der Vaart retired from football some weeks ago. A look at his new life and a look back on his career. Thanks to VI Pro, and Simon Zwartkruis.
As we all know on this blog, Rafa is a very warm and open and approachable guy. He gladly took time to be interviewed by your favorite blogger (yes, me) before and when Zwartkruis visits Rafael at home, the first thing the former Ajax playmaker says is: “Hey, you will stay for dinner, right?”
While dad Ramon is fixing dinner, son Damian is facetiming his dad from Hamburg and would later on skype with his daughter who spends time with grandma in Nijmegen and the NOS editors are trying to contact Van der Vaart for his role in Studio Voetbal, the #23 gets a call from a German tv team who need directions to get to Van der Vaart’s home in Beverwijk. Van der Vaart has accepted a role in the German tv show Darts with Stars… Van der Vaart laughs: “Don’t think I have heaps of time, now I am retired. I am more busy than ever.”
He decided a couple of weeks ago, to make that big decision. “I was at practice at Esbjerg. And believe me, with the ball I was still the best player. And I really enjoyed playing there, I did. But these fricking little injuries kept on coming back. I would train all week, prepare for finally another real match and on Saturday: bam! Another muscle issue. I told my girlfriend: this is it! One more injury and I’m out. And it happened. The calf. During practice. I stood up, walked to the dressing room. Grabbed my bag and I went home. I didn’t need to tell Estavana. She saw it in my face. And I also felt relief by the way. It was done.”
Before this season, I actually considered moving to Holland. I could sign with Telstar, which is just around the corner of course. But I have a girlfriend in Denmark, a son in Germany… I didn’t think it would work. I actually worked with John van ‘t Schip at PEC Zwolle in the pre-season to stay fit. And that was tremendous. It felt like I was 18 again, you know. Because John was my most influential youth coach at Ajax, I worked well with him. And of course he was our assistant coach at Oranje, in 2006 and 2008 and I think he is a top notch coach and guy. PEC offered me a deal and it looked really good. But it was too complicated due to my shattered family, so I decided no. Damian is the son of divorced parents. I wanted to be there for him. From Esbjerg to Hamburg is only 3 hours by car, so I choose family over career now. Finally.”
And I can see that he, like me, is all about football. He started off a as a shy kid, but is getting more self aware. I was raised with a “belief in yourself attitude” and that was also augmented at Ajax. We have that “We are the Best!” mentality there and sure, others will see it as arrogant. And it is. But bluf and self confidence are important for a sportsman. You need to walk onto the pitch with the attitude of “this is my home!”. I always wanted the ball, I always wanted to organise everything and be the dominant guy. Even when I made my debut at Oranje, in midfield. I played with giant, like Seedorf and Davids but I wanted to take all the free kicks, you know? I was convinced of my skills, but I wasn’t a dominant guy off the pitch. Don’t get me wrong. I felt uneasy at the start, with Oranje. The first years, I was quiet. I had a lot of respect for these experienced guys, I mean… Van der Sar, Stam, Phillip Cocu… God… I was totally different on the pitch, I played with flair and was cheeky but off the pitch, I couldn’t eat at lunch. So nervous. And I watched how the others would eat their meals or what they would do, and I would copy that, hahaha. I didn’t want to be told off. We had training camps of 10 days and I would count the hours you know. But on the pitch, I was able to make the difference. That Oranje was strong, by the way. I was a starter for Ajax for a considerable time before I was called up. Today, if you play 3 good games for your club you can expect a call from Koeman, hahaha. I was one one of the few from the Eredivisie, the rest all played at top level in Europe. When Sneijder, Heitinga and Nigel de Jong joined me, it became a bit easier. We had our own little group to hang out. And of course, when you can make the difference in the match, you will be easily accepted by the regulars.”
I was a kid of the club, at Ajax. And it felt like home. How different it was, when I moved to Hamburg. Unbelievable. My first practice session at HSV, I will never forget. I was a big money signing and I felt the pressure showing my team mates how good I was. I did it all, took on opponents, played slide rule passes, shoot balls in the top corner, the whole thing. And that makes for an easy entrance. The pre season friendlies went well and before you know it the mania started. Every day, articles in the media, there was a run on shirts with my name and number…. I was used to some attention at Ajax, but this in Germany was just out of this world.”
“When I left for Real Madrid I noticed my status was different. Of course, I need to add. The rotation system they used at Real was not for me. I had to get used to it. I scored a hattrick vs Sporting Gijon and the next weekend I was on the bench. I didn’t get that. It made me a bit uncertain and antsy. But, Real Madrid is not a club where you knock on the door of the coach, to ask if he’s seeing it properly, hahaha. And after my first season, Real decided to go shopping. C Ronaldo came. Kaka came. So you know it will get harder. And when the new president said all Dutch players needed to go, it was almost undoable. The technical director Valdano and coach Pellegrini told me I was their 6th choice for the number 10 role. Behind Raul, Guti, Kaka, Granero and talent Canales. But, I didn’t want to leave and I told them. I also told them they made a mistake as I was the best option for that role. And I would show them. I started to train like an animal and in the fourth playing round, I got my chance. Away at Villareal I got a turn. I worked my ass off and had an assist. And from that game on, I was playing again. And that was just fantastic. After the winter break, I was a starter. For Pellegrini I was first choice for the #10 role. And I flew over the pitch, I was fit, scored goals and gave assists and we kept on winning. We played a Champions League game vs Olympique Lyon and Cristiano Ronaldo was angry with the coach for now playing me. They had this heated debate in the dressing room. That was a real compliment. I fought myself back into the game, I’m proud of that. They actually took my shirt number away, before the season and I fought myself back into the fold. At any other club, I might have said: fuck ‘m all, I’m out. But this was Real Madrid. Doesn’t get bigger.”
The Dutch contingent at Madrid, sans Huntelaar actually…
“After Madrid, it was Tottenham. I really enjoyed that time. We only played top matches in a crazy pace. My goodness. That is probably my best period in my career. I scored, I had assists and we had a sensational team, I think better than that Madrid team, actually. My partnership with Modric, with Bale, with Crouch. Special. The World Cup in South Africa was the high point and low point of my career. I went to Spurs right after it and I was in top shape and enjoyed my football. By the way, the lost WC finals vs Spain still hurts you know. I worked with Bert van Marwijk in Hamburg later on and we spoke about that finals a lot. Glass of wine and a conversation and the more wine we drank, the more emotional we got, hahaha.”
“Man, I enjoyed my career. I played for amazing clubs and lived in sensational cities… I have had great times with Oranje, more than 100 caps. And now I am free. I watch Damian play in Hamburg, I follow Estavana with her matches (she is a pro handball player in Denmark) and I like doing the tv work (Raf is co-host and analyticus).
Rafa being important for Spurs in the derby
I am doing this with Pierre van Hooijdonk and it feels like we have a click on tv just like we had on the pitch. Pierre loves football humor, like me and would always lead on the pitch.”
“And I am positive about Dutch football. Koeman is the ideal coach for Oranje. I worked with him at Ajax and obviously had my share of issues and clashes with him. He is quite pragmatic and can be direct and tough. And I was not really mature in those days. My position was simple: a coach that puts me in the team is a world class coach. A coach who benches me is a dickhead. But back then, at the start of his coaching career, he already was top notch. And I judge a coach now, on what he can make his players do.”
“Now I see Memphis working his butt off, I can Babel playing a wing back and defending all the way to his own corner flag, I can see the aggression in the defenders, wonderful! Just wonderful. And the home game vs France was a highpoint. A top team performance. The panenka penalty by Memphis as the absolute cherry on the cake. And if you see how Frenkie is making his mark already on the performances, and how Bergwijn is developing and also Wijnaldum, who finally gets to his level of Liverpool at Oranje. I’m very positive about the future.”
“But I have huge weak spot for Frenkie de Jong, which is probably quite natural. He is the one who can make the difference. And the trend is now that midfielders need to be like triathlon athletes, strong and tall and muscular. But some of them have really terrible ball skills. It starts with technique. The rest can be developed. And I love it how Ajax is now impressing in Europe with skilled, technical players. Frenkie, Ziyech, Tadic, Neres, Van de Beek, all great players. They’re great on the ball but also very agile and fit. Most fans of attractive football will adore this team.”
“I’m not sure of becoming a coach is for me. I have had an invite from Heitinga to assist him at Ajax, under 19. That will be fun. But for now, I want to enjoy life. And I am a romantic. When I see Isco on the bench at Madrid, I want to cry. Casemiro plays and Isco doesn’t not… I don’t get that. Although I have learned to see how certain types of players are important for the balance in the team. It sounds like coach-talk, but it’s true. You won’t win anything with eleven Iscos or eleven Rafael van der Vaarts.”
“But, I do think clubs are starting to over-analyse. At Midtjylland, I suddenly had half a computer around my neck. In a little bag. Could I please put this around my neck? Well, no. Sorry. I threw the thing in the bin. Come on man, you have eyes in your head? They could see how many sprints I made and in which direction. Bullshit. They could even see to which supermarket I went and what vegetables I bought, hahaha. I told them: why don’t we focus on playing the ball to a player with the same colour shirt. My goodness. For me, it all starts with the ball.”
When asked what Rafael’s Best Line Up would be, with players he played with, this is what he came up with…
“I had sleepless nights man, coming up with this line up. I had 109 caps for Oranje, played pro football for 12 years and was at a number of clubs, so I had sooo many options. But here it comes…
On goal, Edwin van der Sar. He was un-be-lievable. And I worked with some great goalies, like Casillas, but Sar was just unbeatable and a top notch skipper too.
At the back, Marcello on left back. He is a bit like me. A real football lover. Passionate about having fun and playing with flair. He is so good on the ball, so fit and such a nice guy. I tell you what, Royston Drenthe was the other left back and Marcelo and Roy were competing for the spot. They would play in turn. I remember Roy playing great in the Champions League and scoring against Barcelona. The coach wanted Drenthe to be the left back, but Drenthe wanted to be left winger! Can you imagine. And he ended up leaving. Otherwise he could still have been Real Madrid’s left full back, hahaha.
Ledley King is the surprise choice for centre back. I played with some great ones, but this guy… He never trained. He was not fit enough. He only trained for himself and maybe on the day before the match with Spurs he would sit in for the tactical training. He simply was not fit enough. Always playing with pain. But when he played during the match, he was like a rock. He was tremendous. I have soo much respect for that guy. And it didn’t matter that he never trained or even wasn’t at tactical sessions, he could perform anyway.
Rafa with captain Chivu winning the title in Holland
I have Christian Chivu as left centre back. Such a cool dude, a leader and super good on the ball. Header of the ball, long pass, didn’t matter. He could do everything. He could have had a much bigger career if his body supported that.
For right back, Sergio Ramos. He was right back when I played with him. A true leader and a very good bloke. And of course, a super defender. When Wes and I played at Madrid, he was still a rookie, but with a lot of bravado. For free kicks, he would come to the ball and make attempts to take it. Wes and I would say “Go away Ramos! You are merely the right back here!” hahahaha… And off he went. Now he’s a Madrid legend.
Midfield wasn’t hard for me. I played with Modric behind me and man man what an intelligent player he is. So smart, sees everything, great touch. We hardly spoke about football and didn’t need to. We had this telepathic thing. Same with Guti. Of all the #10s I played with or against, he was by far the most gifted. If only he was as serious as he was gifted. Boy, he loved to party and he was such a gregarious guy. Loved life too much. But his vision and his passing skills. I remember a match, I was 30 or 40 yards away from him, he was with his back to me, I made a dash into space, he turns and passes the ball blind into space, right on my left foot. Impossible! He couldn’t have seen me! But he did. Gareth Bale is my left midfielder. Because even though he was playing left full back at Spurs, I would use him as my left midfielder, because he can cover that whole left flank.
Up front, Arjen Robben as right winger is a no brainer. I loved playing with him. An amazing player, his mentality, personality, his speed… He is by far one of the best players ever. Of all time! As left winger, C Ronaldo of course. What an incredible talent and what a work ethic! So focused, so motivated and so good. And you know what, he’s a really nice guy as well. One of the blokes in the dressing room, a really good guy. I saw how his life is, from up close and I am glad I am not like him. He’s a rock star, he can’t leave the house to have a kick with his son or have a coffee with his partner. Whereas I can. In Amsterdam, people say hi, but leave me alone. I am the utmost respect for this guy.
Central striker, well… I played with Benzema, with Zlatan, Kluivert and with Ruud van Nistelrooy to name a few. But Peter Crouch is my man! We had a great partnership. I scored 6 goals in my first 5 Spurs matches I think, all thanks to him. He was a really underrated player too. The Messi of tall dudes, I called him. He really is and was a great player and also a very funny and nice guy. After his 6 assists on me, he came over to me and said:”Hey Raf, how about next time you find me and give me an assist for a change?” And I said “Nah, I think its going fine as it is”, hahahaha.