The big interview: Rafael van der Vaart – "Yes, Zlatan threatened to break my legs – but he did that to everyone..."

Rafael van der Vaart FourFourTwo

What was it like growing up on a trailer park? Why did he fall out with Zlatan Ibrahimovic? And how did he end up kissing an old lady at Spurs? Your questions answered in April 2018… 

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Photography: Kasper Sveistrup Povlsen

Van der Vaart announced his retirement on November 5, 2018 after an injury-hit spell with Danish side Esbjerg. "I just have to stop now. I'm not here to rehabilitate, but to play football," he said. "I would have wanted to become a football grandpa, but that is not the case. I can only be grateful for all the years I was allowed to play football."

Below, he reflects on a fascinating career full of twists and turns... 

He is now a veteran of big-money moves, Champions League campaigns and World Cup finals, but Rafael van der Vaart could still give today's young bucks some sage advice on coping with the strain of being a highly-rated youth. In 2003 he was the first ever Golden Boy, an award given by European sports journalists, and the field was especially competitive. “If I remember correctly, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo came second and third that year,” Van der Vaart tells us, with a cheeky smirk.

Even as a senior pro, the Dutchman hasn’t lost his sense of fun – he gleefully juggles oranges using both hands and feet during our photo shoot, much to the delight of his watching son Damien – or his passion for football. “Whenever I drive past an amateur game,” he says, “I'm always tempted to pull over and have a quick look.”

With all the citrus fruit fun out of the way, Rafa settles down to answer your questions on comparisons with Cruyff, moving to Real Madrid and playing for ‘father figure’ Harry Redknapp at Spurs...

You grew up on a trailer park, didn’t you? What was that life like?
Jon Sharpe, via Twitter

I was raised there so to me it was just the normal life, but every time I've moved to a different country it’s been something I’ve been asked about, as it's considered quite unusual. I had a wonderful time growing up. Many people think it’s linked to poverty but that’s not the case at all. It was very sociable, with other relatives living very close. My parents aren't there any more, because after I signed my first contract at Ajax I bought them a house. But other family members are still on the park, so I still go back.

Is it true that you pretended to be Romario when you played as a kid? Why him? Were you a big PSV fan?
Tom Poke, via Twitter

Yes, Romario was my favourite player. Because of him I liked to watch PSV Eindhoven a lot, but naturally I was an Ajax fan, especially when I got drafted into their academy. What I really liked about him was that sometimes you’d barely see him for the whole match, but then at the very last minute he’d suddenly pop up with a moment of genius that would win PSV the game.

You were hailed as ‘the new Johan Cruyff’ very early in your career, so just how good were you? And how did you feel about the comparisons?
Seb Newton, Bristol

Other people making those comparisons was all right, but personally I’ve never really liked to make them myself. I didn't want to be the next version of any player – I wanted to establish my own name. When I was younger, I always knew I was a pretty good player, but it was impossible to foresee how far I’d go. I had a left foot and vision like no one else, but I wasn’t the quickest and my right foot wasn’t so great, so there were things I needed to work on. I’ve always said the one change that would’ve been nice is if I’d been a bit faster – like fast enough to be able to run past people instead of just being overtaken all the time! I think speed can make a huge difference, to the extent that if I'd been quicker, I believe I could have won the Ballon d’Or at some point during my career.

What was your best moment at Ajax?
Tyler Stokes, via Facebook

There were several highlights. When I was young, the best moment came when I was 10 and I got invited to the academy. I remember getting all this Ajax training gear and suddenly I was able to call myself an Ajax player. From then on, my goal every season was to remain at the club and then make my debut in the first team. I managed to do it when I was 17. I can clearly recall the phone call I made to my dad to tell him that I’d been picked for the senior squad. Once I established myself in the first team, my best ever moment came when I scored with a backheel against Feyenoord. When you’ve scored a goal like that, you realise you'are unlikely to experience a more unique momen.

What’s the truth regarding you and Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Did he really threaten to break your legs? How did your relationship turn so sour?
Morgan Allen, via Facebook

Yes, he did say that, but Zlatan said it to everyone. It’s also true that around that time things just weren’t working between the two of us, but I would rather be in a team with people who are honest, like him, even if it means there are a few arguments. But there wasn’t a specific moment we fell out – we generally didn’t get along well.

At Ajax you were stripped of the club captaincy by Ronald Koeman, after it was reported that you refused to play on the wing in a Champions League game. Is that what happened? What were your feelings towards Koeman?
Archie Raynor, via Facebook

Yeah, that one is true. One day, before a game against Bayern Munich, Ronald came to me and said: “At this moment, you aren't good enough to play for us as a midfielder but we want you to play as a left-winger.” I wasn't happy with that, because if I wasn’t good enough to play in my natural role, how could I be considered good enough to play out of position? In the end, I asked to be on the bench, which eventually led to me being stripped of the captaincy. Later on, after we’d both left Ajax, we recognised the mistakes we'd made. I’m the first to admit when my actions aren’t the smartest, and that incident showed a lack of respect to Koeman.

How did you feel when Johan Cruyff used his column in De Telegraaf to criticise your transfer to Hamburg? Why did you move there when so many other clubs were interested?
Farah van Milligen, via Facebook

I’m never that bothered by someone giving his opinion in a column. But with regards to my Hamburg move, I can remember I wasn’t really keen when they first approached me. I agreed to visit the club and the reception I got was incredible. I spoke with manager Thomas Doll and the directors Bernd Hoffmann and Dietmar Beiersdorfer, and their vision was really impressive. I got to see the stadium, which was phenomenal, and soon I realised that this was the club I wanted to sign for.

Describe what it was like playing for Real Madrid? How intense was the experience? Could you go anywhere in Madrid without fans everywhere asking for autographs and pictures?
Hugo Barreto, via Twitter

Overall I had a really good time there, but yes, it was very difficult to go out somewhere in Madrid without getting noticed all the time. In London it was less of an issue, and here in Denmark it’s even quieter. But generally it’s nice when people come up to you or have a little chat, although I'm not overly keen on crowds. I’m not complaining about it, though, because if you don’t really want that lifestyle, you should just remain as an amateur footballer.