Eyebrows were raised when Rafael van der Vaart joined Hamburger SV in May. Why would such a young, prodigious talent agree to a move to the Bundesliga, a league the Dutch perceive to be built on strength, stamina and running?
Surely his attacking flair would be better suited to southern Europe. After all, the attacking midfielder had often claimed FC Barcelona as his favourite club, and his mother is Spanish. Italy or England, maybe, but Germany? Van der Vaart’s decision to leave AFC Ajax, however, had not come as a surprise. The 22-year-old's career had come to a standstill. His form had dipped and he had announced he would not extend his contract beyond June 2006. Ajax's loss has been Hamburg's gain.
Van der Vaart has been outstanding for HSV, inspiring his new side through the UEFA Intertoto Cup and into the UEFA Cup Group Stage. He is the spark that sets Hamburg’s attack alight, and has already scored ten times. A week ago his early strike helped inflict a first defeat on FC Bayern Műnchen, on Thursday his late penalty knocked FC København out of the UEFA Cup, on Saturday he scored two more as Hamburg defeated Kaiserslautern to stay within a point of leaders Bayern. Van der Vaart has put the dark days at Ajax behind him, the upward trajectory of his early career has been resumed.
Van der Vaart was born on 11 February 1983 in Heemskerk. His father is Dutch, his mother Spanish. The family lived in a trailer-park. By the age of four he was already playing football. "From the moment Rafael was able to walk, we were busy together with the ball.
When he was about four, he did things with a ball that made me think, 'Hey, that boy really has something special'," his father later said.
At the age of ten Van der Vaart was recruited by the Ajax youth set-up. He was the club's most exciting prospect and made his first-team debut soon after turning 17 on 19 April 2000. He stepped up to the international side just eight months after that. Van der Vaart suffered his first set-back in February 2002 when he badly injured his right knee, but his 14 goals had already helped Ajax to the title.
Van der Vaart was back in top form the following season, but with expectations so high, the Ajax captain was vulnerable to criticism, particularly over a perceived defensive vulnerability. His high-profile relationship with Dutch actress Sylvie Meis became a source of ammunition for opposition supporters and when in December 2004 he lost the captaincy after a conflict with coach Ronald Koeman, it was time to move on.
Released from the Ajax pressure cooker he has thrived at the Hamburg Arena where his attacking instincts are catered to the full. He plays in his preferred position behind the front two, with Rafael Wicky providing defensive cover. He is considered Hamburg’s best signing since Kevin Keegan, helping turn the sleeping giants from under-achievers into serious title contenders.
Coach Thomas Doll's €5.1m signing looks to be the steal of the year. "Doll is one of the reasons I decided Hamburg was the right team to join," Van der Vaart says. "He shared his visions with me and made me feel at home immediately.
Trust is always important for a player and the coach put his trust in me." Persistence goes a long way too. "I pestered him until he agreed to join us," HSV sporting director Dietmar Beiersdorfer said.
It is not only the goals and smooth passing that have adhered the Dutchman to his German following, but also his down-to-earth attitude and willingness to take responsibility. In recent years Sergej Barbarez has carried the side, but with Van der Vaart alongside him the load is lifted. Ultimately, though, the Dutch may benefit most from Van der Vaart's German renaissance.
Should the Netherlands avoid defeat against the Czech Republic on Saturday, the rest of the Dutch squad could be joining Van der Vaart in Germany this summer. First though, he must convince coach Marco van Basten he deserves a place back in the side. "I am feeling terrific," he said on his arrival at the Dutch training camp. "I'm in good form, and always feel at home in the Dutch squad. I have to show it in training. I have come here to get a place in the team."
World Cup goal
The Dutch 4-3-3 formation means Van der Vaart has to adapt to a place on the left wing for the Netherlands, and with Philip Cocu suspended he is likely to win his 33rd cap. If he can reproduce in Prague the excellent form he is showing for Hamburg, a place in the World Cup squad should follow. It appears Hamburg was the right move for Van der Vaart after all.
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