On 12 September 2000, Ajax were playing Belgian side Gent in a UEFA Cup knockout match. Eighty-two minutes had gone; the Dutch side were 4-0 up going into the final stages of the game when a young 17-year-old grabbed the fifth goal of the evening. That young boy was being heralded as the new superstar to emerge from the Ajax youth academy. His name was Rafael van der Vaart.
Van der Vaart wasn’t a child who was blessed with a lot of opportunities. He was born in a small town in Holland called Heemskerk, which has a population less than the capacity of Stamford Bridge, to a Dutch father and a Spanish migrant mother from Cadiz. Van der Vaart apparently grew up in a trailer park in the town, living a “gypsy lifestyle”, according to some.
The young Dutchman was aware that this way of life was slightly different to everyone else he knew, but that never fazed him. He didn’t know any different; this was all he had known. He even spoke it about it later on in his life, stating: “That was the way my family lived. My father was born there and it is a lifestyle. Maybe it isn’t a normal lifestyle, but I always liked it. I always liked to play football on the streets.”
I was voted as the first Golden Boy when the award started.
If I remember correctly, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo came second and third that year."
—Rafael van der Vaart was the most prodigious among Netherland's golden generation of the 2000s which includes Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben
That last sentence is important to remember when you watch Van der Vaart. Much like how many claim Wayne Rooney is a street footballer in England, Van der Vaart had that similar style of play over in Holland. He grew up loving football, and when he played for his youth club, De Kennemers, based in Beverwijk, he always tried to emulate his hero Romário. He adored the game and wanted nothing more than to become a footballer. At the age of 10, he got his wish when he signed for Ajax.
Van der Vaart joined the Amsterdam giants in 1993 alongside the likes of defender Johnny Heitinga and playmaker Wesley Sneijder, signalling that the famed youth set up was having a resurgence of sorts. Sneijder and Heitinga were slowly making names for themselves, but at the age of 17, Van der Vaart made his professional debut for Ajax in a disappointing 1-1 draw away at FC Den Bosch.
His first Eredivisie goal came at home against Roda, and it was quite the delicate goal, too. Andre Bergdolmo sent a long ball up to Van der Vaart, who shrugged off his marker multiple times to lob the ball over Bas Roorda in the Roda net. In an instant, we saw the natural ability that Van der Vaart had, as well as his confidence in that ability. Fans were excited over this new talent that had emerged from the youth system, and they were ready to see more of him in the first team.
I knew I was pretty good from young. I had a left foot and vision like no one else so I could see where the comparisons came from.
But it was impossible to foresee how far I could go. There were things I needed to work on as well, such as the fact that I wasn’t the quickest and my right foot wasn’t so great. The comparisons weren't helpful in that sense."
—Debuting for Ajax at 17 years old, Van der Vaart was quickly hailed as the new Johan Cruyff
Van der Vaart would end his debut season with nine goals in 32 appearances across three competitions and was voted as the European Talent of the Year by Italian website calciomanager.it. The next year for the young Dutchman was set to be a contrasting one within itself as so many emotions were experienced across the campaign.
Van der Vaart started the season with a goal against Roda as he rescued a point for the Amsterdam side, then followed that performance up with another goal a week later, this time against arch-rivals Feyenoord with what proved to be the winner—after a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic had opened the scoring. Van der Vaart was slowly starting to come into a class of his own with consistently outstanding performances, but what followed next really cemented him as one of the top young players of his generation.
He scored seven goals in seven consecutive games to send Ajax top of the Eredivisie, winning all but one of the games he scored in. At the age of just 18, Van der Vaart was perhaps Europe’s finest young prospect, watched by the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United, but despite his rich vein of form and scoring his first professional hat-trick in a 5–1 home demolition of Vitesse Arnhem, the Dutchman suffered the first serious injury of his career, one that would never truly leave him over the course of the next 15 years.
The improvised backheel goal against Feyenoord.
When you’ve scored a goal like that, you realise you're unlikely to experience something more unique."
—Van der Vaart's favourite Ajax moment was a most outrageous scorpion kick goal he had pulled off
Despite missing a large chunk of the 2001/02 season, Van der Vaart still managed to finish as the club’s top scorer with 18 goals, most of which came towards the back end of the season, including a couple of braces against Zwolle and De Graafschap and a hat-trick against RKC Waalwijk.
If you look at early clips online of Van der Vaart, they aren’t the flashiest of goals but they have a special kind of quality about them. They were goals that required natural ability to find the back of the net and a clever instinct to find a way past the defenders. Van der Vaart wasn’t blessed with pace, but his brain moved quicker than the defenders’ legs, and that’s how he gained his advantage. His first touch, vision, and ability to find space was yards ahead of anyone else.
As Ajax finished second in the Eredivisie to PSV, Van der Vaart went into the following season with enormous expectations over him. He had been consistently brilliant over the previous two seasons, so when his form dropped significantly, it took a lot of people by surprise. The player himself said that he was overweight and many in the media started to criticise his relationship with Dutch reality TV star Sylvie Meis. As Ajax once again conceded the title to PSV, a lot was to change over the pre-season break.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic threatened to break my legs.
Things just weren’t working between the two of us, but I do appreciate being in a team with people who are honest like him even if it means there would be a few arguments."
—Despite their similar penchant for flair, Van der Vaart did not share much friendship with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Ajax changing room
Despite his poor year and a bust-up with Ibrahimovic, prompting the Swede to be sold to Juventus, Ronald Koeman made Van der Vaart club captain. He was now regarded as the main attacker at the club following the departure of Ibrahimovic, but in some ways it was again a disappointing season for Van der Vaart. He only managed seven goals, and with fans getting on his back and his ongoing injury problems still threatening, Van der Vaart announced that he would be departing Amsterdam at the end of the year. In hindsight, it was probably a move needed at this stage of his career as his star was beginning to wane.
This began a summer of speculation, with AC Milan and Manchester United once again showing interest, but to the surprise of seemingly everyone, he made the move to Hamburg. Even the great Johan Cruyff was shocked, saying in his column in De Telegraaf: “I don’t know what to say about it or what Van der Vaart is doing in Hamburg. This would not have been thinkable two years ago, obviously things have not gone well for Van der Vaart.”
Despite the shock of the move, Van der Vaart went on to have a brilliant season for Hamburg, scoring nine goals in the Bundesliga as his new club finished third and qualified for the Champions League. He looked like he was enjoying life in Germany and the fans took to him almost immediately, falling in love with his supreme flair.
I wasn’t exactly keen when Hamburg approached me. But I agreed to visit the club: I got an incredible reception, the vision the club directors and then-manager Thomas Doll presented was impressive, then I went to see the stadium.
Right there I decided this is the club I want to sign for."
—Van der Vaart would leave Ajax for Hamburg to the surprise of many
Hamburg, however, in the eyes of many, struggled on the pitch during the next season, and despite Van der Vaart’s 11 goals helping them qualify for and win the Intertoto Cup, many considered the campaign to be a failure as the club slumped to seventh and dropped out of the Champions League early. This began talks of the Dutchman leaving Germany, with Real Madrid heavily linked, but the captain committed himself for one more season with HSV.
Although it would prove to be his final year, it didn’t stop the Dutchman from scoring 12 goals in the Bundesliga and 21 in total as Hamburg and Huub Stevens qualified for the following season’s UEFA Cup. Van der Vaart once again went on a run of scoring seven goals in seven consecutive appearances, and left as a fan favourite despite his short time at the club. Many Hamburg fans understood his decision to leave, especially when it was Real Madrid who came calling.
At the time, Madrid were after a Dutch revolution, bringing in the likes of Arjen Robben from Chelsea and his old friend from Ajax, Wesley Sneijder. Still, many Los Blancos fans were most excited about Van der Vaart joining. On his debut, he scored the third in Real’s win over Numancia, an absolute rocket that flew straight past the goalkeeper—an emphatic way to introduce yourself to the new home fans.
Some might say my time with Real Madrid was unsuccessful but look at the stats.
It wasn't easy, especially my last season when Manuel Pellegrini told me I was his fifth choice behind Guti Hernandez, Ricardo Kaka, Esteban Granero, and Raul Gonzalez; but in the end I played regularly and scored a handful."
—Lost amid a sea of Galacticos, Van der Vaart nevertheless does not see his time at Real Madrid as failure
Two games later and Van der Vaart would have his first hat-trick at the club after netting three past Sporting Gijon, but that was as good as it got for him that season. He would only score one more goal, late on in the season in a 3–2 loss away at Villarreal, and unfortunately for him and Real Madrid, they lost the league title to arguably the greatest side to grace modern football—Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
It was also in the second half of the season that people started to question whether he and Juande Ramos had fallen out, considering that Van der Vaart had been used almost exclusively as a substitute—despite his blistering start—and that he only completed 90 minutes three times in the season, twice being in the final two games of the campaign.
As a result, rumours swirled around his future, but he stayed for the time being until after Manuel Pellegrini had been appointed, although the Chilean clearly wasn’t a big fan. After a stop-start time in Spain, was his talent on the verge of wasting away? It felt like he was on his way out when fellow Dutchmen, Robben, Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, were kicked out of the club to make way for Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Karim Benzema.
Jose Mourinho told me honestly that Real Madrid had bought Mesut Ozil to play in my position. I intended to stay and fight for my place but 20 minutes before the transfer window shut my lawyer called and said Tottenham want me.
I said, 'Yeah, let's do it!' I had no time to overthink or discuss with anybody. It was pure intuition."
—Van der Vaart joined Tottenham on transfer deadline day in 2010
During his final season, one spent watching more than playing, he only managed seven goals. Needing a move fast, he embarked on a transfer to the Premier League that would finally give the playmaker a chance to show his talent at the top on a consistent basis.
On 31 August 2010, Harry Redknapp, Daniel Levy and Tottenham Hotspur managed to seal a deal for what many described as the bargain of the window when they signed Van der Vaart for a paltry £8m. In just two hours, he had gone from being surplus to requirements under Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid to the star man in a bright Tottenham Hotspur team.
For arguably the first time in his career, Van der Vaart was the player that a squad was built around, with Luka Modric and Gareth Bale playing off him, while the Dutchman played a supporting role behind Peter Crouch. Tottenham needed a player of his calibre for their Champions League campaign, and Van der Vaart flourished there.
Harry Redknapp was magical. He gives you the boost.
His team talks were simple but assuring, like, 'Just give the ball to Luka Modric, then Luka try to find Rafa, and you will win the game.' Then when we play well he'd openly praise us, like, 'Fucking hell Rafa, what a player!' He's someone you'd run faster for."
—Van der Vaart enjoyed a career renaissance under Harry Redknapp
Never before had he been loved quite so strongly by a set of fans. During his time at White Hart Lane, he was lauded by the Spurs faithful as he consistently scored and set the Premier League alight with his creativity and technique. His first memorable performance came at home against Aston Villa, where he scored a brace and struck up a great big man, little man partnership with Crouch. Spurs fans were about to see what he could really do.
What made him so special to Spurs fans was how he could make the roof come off White Hart Lane when he scored. His goal against Inter Milan in the Champions League produced one of the biggest roars the stadium had ever witnessed—a truly incredible moment that sticks with anyone who was there.
Van der Vaart was the perfect Redknapp player. He may have had some niggling injuries but when he was fully fit, he had the ability to win a match on his own, something he often did. Spurs weren’t the force they are now back then, sitting in fifth for the majority of the season and not going very far in the League Cup or FA Cup, but fans and players alike were inspired by what Van der Vaart brought to the club.
That Tottenham–Arsenal game in April 2011 is my best day in football.
'Twas a warm spring night, with a little evening sun and a brilliant atmosphere in the stadium. We went 1–0 down, I hit the equaliser, but then we let in two before pulling it back to 3–3, me scoring another. Luka Modric would miss a huge chance to win the tie towards the end, which was a pity, but I don’t think the supporters had often experienced a derby quite as exhilarating as that one—it was incredible."
—Van der Vaart recounts the defining match that cemented his Tottenham fan-favourite status
Whilst he didn’t score as many goals in his second season, he was arguably even better in a new-look line-up. A run to the FA Cup semi-finals and a fourth-placed finish was a strong return, but due to Chelsea winning the Champions League, they missed out on the competition for the following season. Little did we know, however, that this would be it for the Dutchman in north London.
His last goal for Tottenham came in a 4-1 win over Bolton, and his final goal at White Hart Lane came against Blackburn Rovers, but these wouldn’t be the last times that Spurs fans appreciated him. Van der Vaart was a hero during his two years at the club and is still looked upon fondly. Not many players have played in front of those fans and struck a connection as the Dutch international did, and that is why Spurs fans were upset to see him go when Andre Villas-Boas and Gylfi Sigurdsson arrived, despite his injury problems.
On 31 August 2012, two years to the day that he joined Tottenham, he departed England to return to his former club Hamburg, wearing the number 23 shirt. Unfortunately, despite once again being made captain, he only lasted two years in Germany. Injury issues and off-field problems meant that he would join LaLiga side Real Betis for a season, where he wouldn’t even manage 10 appearances in all competitions.
I came to Esbjerg to play football, not to rehabilitate, so I just have to stop now.
I wanted to become a 'football grandpa' and that's not to be, but I can only be grateful for all the years I was allowed to play football."
—Van der Vaart announced his retirement midway through 2018/19 as injuries took their toll
Van der Vaart announced his retirement on 5 November 2018 after an injury-hit spell with Danish side Esbjerg fB. Despite his fall from grace and perhaps, in the eyes of many, not fulfilling his immense potential at the top for long enough, we shouldn’t forget that coming into the 21st century, the now 37-year-old was a player of extraordinary skill. His natural ability, combined with the quick thinking that he gained both on the street as a youngster and in the Ajax youth system, rendered us a talent that had it all; a leader on the field whose skill was undeniable.
While Wesley Sneijder may be remembered as the golden boy of the mid-2000s Dutch sides, Van der Vaart was always there, picking up 109 caps for Oranje in the process. Exciting at Ajax, brilliant at Hamburg, and inspiring at Tottenham Hotspur; he’s a player we should celebrate, even if he was probably born 10 years too late to have had the impact at the top that his talent deserved.