The big interview: Edwin van der Sar - "After I'd pushed away Anelka's penalty, I felt like I was separated from the world for a couple of seconds"
Photography: Pim Hendriksen
It’s not often a club CEO is the subject of a FourFourTwo One-on-One – but it’s not often that a CEO also happens to have won eight league titles and two European Cups. “The way I try to make the club more successful, in terms of raising revenue and winning trophies, is similar to how I captained teams as a keeper,” Ajax’s Edwin van der Sar says, before outlining the similarities between dominating an 18-yard box and a boardroom.
Van der Sar believes that, although he may not have a strong academic background or years and years of business experience on his CV, his two decades in the game give him invaluable insight into how to run a club. Particularly this club, where he played with distinction from 1990-99, lifting four Eredivisie titles, three Dutch Cups, the UEFA Cup and the Champions League, beating Milan in 1995.
All of that should stand Edwin in good stead when it comes to answering your questions about his glittering career, too...
Had you always dreamt of becoming a goalkeeper? Do you remember the first time that you ever went in goal?
Chris Ambler, Portsmouth
For the first one-and-a-half years I was an outfield player. But then one day our keeper didn’t show up for a game and the coach said to me: “Edwin, you’re the tallest, so you go in goal.” That went so well that I just ended up staying there. For many years I’d played for a small amateur side called VV Noordwijk, and I didn't expect my dream of becoming a professional to ever come true. When I was around 19, I was approached by Sparta Rotterdam to be the third-choice goalkeeper. However, they only offered to cover my travel expenses, so I chose to stay where I was at Noordwijk. Then a few days later Ajax phoned and asked me to go and sign for them, which I did.
- 1990-99 Ajax
- 1999-2001 Juventus
- 2001-05 Fulham
- 2005-11 Manchester United
- 2016 VV Noordwijk
What are your thoughts on the rise of the sweeper-keeper? You were always good with your feet: did you inspire it?
Nav Singh, via Facebook
During the 1990s we deployed a system at Ajax where I was indeed involved in the build-up play, and it can be an asset if you want to use a certain style of play. Sometimes I believe that people attach too much importance to it. A goalkeeper is there mainly to stop the ball going in.
Louis van Gaal occasionally appeared a bit eccentric when he was managing in England. Was he like that at Ajax?
Laura Matthews, via Facebook
He hasn’t really changed very much, in terms of how he deals with the press or how he is with people in private – like at a dinner party, for example. I visited one of his training sessions when he was at Manchester United and I still saw a very driven man who is continuously focused on improving his players. The way that he dealt with players, the key elements of his training sessions and his general rules – it was all still very recognisable to me, even after so many years away.
Do you think another Dutch team will lift the Champions League trophy? It's not very likely now, unfortunately.
Andy Green, Merseyside
That will be very, very difficult. Even in my time, like 20 years ago, it was still a massive achievement, but back in those days you had only one club per country and perhaps 16 teams overall in the final stages of the competition. With the new model the romance has somewhat gone, I believe. Even if they implement some new rules, I think the bigger teams will always dominate the tournament as they will overtake all of the other clubs with their huge budgets.
That Ajax squad was full of players every club in Europe wanted to sign. Who did Juventus have to compete with to finally land your signature?
Paul Kelly, via Facebook
When I left Ajax in 1999, I travelled to Liverpool and spoke to Gerard Houllier. I was shown around Anfield and also met with the chairman and a couple of the players. I thought about it properly, but when Juventus came to the table I came to the conclusion that it would be a bigger challenge to go and play in Italy. But just as I was about to sign for them, Manchester United approached me as well! At that time I talked to the brother of Alex Ferguson, though I was already at an advanced stage with Juve. I liked the thought of going somewhere that had a completely different culture and playing style, but it was a leap into the unknown to move to a Serie A club.
Later, I found out that Ferguson had always been really keen on signing me, but the chairman of United had a deal to sign Mark Bosnich on a free instead. So the idea had always been for me to succeed Peter Schmeichel, but it ended up taking six years longer than planned and they tried out some other keepers in that period. While I was with Fulham I also heard about vague interest from Arsenal but that never materialised into anything concrete, which was a pity at the time. That made it pretty nice when I won a few times against Arsenal with United later on in my career...
What is the most amazing thing you ever saw Zinedine Zidane do during your time together at Juve? And what was the Frenchman like as a person?
Will Clay, Yorkshire
He was a really normal guy. In Italy you also have those flashy boys, with nice cars and expensive clothes, but Zidane was always very casual. You would just see him in jeans and a white t-shirt. He was down to earth but he had incredible quality. If you ever passed or threw the ball out to him and the ball was slightly inaccurate, he would control it in such a way that it was instantly playable. He knew exactly what was going on around him and could pass the ball everywhere. Sometimes it seemed as if he was even quicker with a football than without it.
What did you say to Ariel Ortega just before the Argentine headbutted you and saw red at the 1998 World Cup?
Darren Walsh, via Facebook
Ortega had attempted to win a penalty by throwing himself over Jaap Stam's leg. As he was getting up, I leant over him and ‘questioned his parentage’. He got irritated and stood up a bit too fast!
Do you get nightmares thinking about Francesco Totti’s chipped penalty at Euro 2000? Do you think you could’ve saved it? And how heartbreaking was it to lose in the semi-finals like that?
Gustaaf Henriksen, Maastricht
The chipped penalty wasn’t the hardest part to handle – a goal is a goal, whether it’s done with a chip or not. No, if I had any nightmares about that one game, they would’ve more likely been about all of those penalties we missed. We missed two spot-kicks during normal time, then another three in the penalty shootout. Francesco Toldo saved three – two of them from Frank de Boer – and Patrick Kluivert hit a post with one. The other one from Jaap Stam is probably still somewhere in that top tier behind the goal! We managed to miss five out of six penalties, which is probably a few too many if you want to reach a final...
How did you feel to be ousted by Gigi Buffon at Juve? Looking back, did they make the right choice or do you think they should have just stuck with you?
Jimmy Wainwright, Cardiff
It didn’t happen in particularly pleasant circumstances, although I must admit I didn’t reach the level at Juventus that I had reached before in Holland. In that summer  I had actually requested a meeting to hear about their ideas for the forthcoming season. They said they were looking to bring in one or two new players, but assured me I didn’t have to worry. Then, probably a week later, they brought in Buffon for about £30 million. Obviously that deal must have been in the pipeline for some time, though they decided not to tell me anything about it when I went for that meeting. So, yeah, it took me by surprise and I had to start looking at my options to find a new club.
NEXT: Why did he decide to join Fulham from Juve?