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
We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

How did Harry Redknapp at Spurs compare to your previous managers? He must have been pretty different...
Josh Hodgson, via Twitter

He was a magical guy – a father figure – but Harry could also be rock-hard. He was very much an old-school type of coach. During a team talk, he’d pull out a little piece of paper on which he'd written down the starting XI and would say things to us like, “Just give the ball to Luka [Modric], then Luka can try to find Rafa, and you will win the game.” Then, if we'd played a really good first half, he would openly praise you, saying things like, “Fucking hell, Rafa, what a player!” He gave you a boost – you would run faster for someone like him. Redknapp’s style suited my own very well, and it all fitted in perfectly with my overall positive image of the English game while I was at the club.

Why did you kiss that old woman after you scored in Tottenham’s 2-1 victory against Aston Villa in October 2010? Was she shocked?
Will Farmer, via Facebook

I remember that! After scoring, I ran into a corner of fans and actually fell into her arms. It was more like a hug. It seemed like a lady of 80 years old – I don’t know who she was.

In your short career with Tottenham you managed to score a lot of goals against Arsenal and gave their fans some stick, too. Do you still hate the Gooners? How did the North London Derby compare to your other derbies?
Michael Kay, Surbiton

I never had anything against Arsenal, but when I joined Spurs I tried to learn about the club’s traditions and I soon found out about the magnitude of the match. I always try to immerse myself in the emotions of the fans, and in the derbies against Arsenal I tried to give Spurs fans a little bit of their pride back. I wanted them to have something to cheer about at work the next morning. Other derbies I played in were really special, too. Real against Atletico was a good atmosphere, and I played in El Clasico. That isn't strictly a derby, but it’s seen globally as the biggest game of the year – you can definitely feel it. All over the world, people are talking about it, and it almost feels as if you're going to play the World Cup final.

Did Jack Wilshere say anything to you after you’d utterly humiliated him by nutmegging him twice in the space of a few seconds?
Alex Fuller, via Facebook

I don’t remember him saying anything to me. All I remember is what I said to him afterwards: “Close your legs next time!” I still regard that Spurs-Arsenal game [in April 2011] as my best day in football. It was on a warm spring night, with a little evening sun and a brilliant atmosphere in the stadium – just the perfect footballing conditions. I had one of my best games that night. We went 1-0 down, I scored the equaliser, but then we let in two before pulling it back to 3-3, with me scoring another goal. Luka Modric missed a big chance to make it 4-3 towards the end, which was a pity because we needed to win. I don’t think the supporters had often experienced a derby quite as good as that one – it was an incredible match.

Why did Spurs fall away in 2011/12, having looked like being right in the title race? Did the England rumours around Harry Redknapp distract the players? Spurs were amazing in the opening six months of that season…
Thomas Kemp, via Facebook

I remember in the January we played a big match against Manchester City, who were five points ahead of us at that point. We were 2-0 down, before coming back to 2-2. In stoppage time we got this big chance, where Gareth Bale raced away, only to play the ball just too far in front of Jermain Defoe, who poked it wide. Moments later we gave away a penalty. Mario Balotelli scored it, we lost the game and the gap became eight points, which was a huge blow to our title aspirations. Until then, we'd been in such good form that it felt as if we had a genuine opportunity to win the Premier League title.

You’ve gone on record as saying how much you regret leaving Spurs, so how exactly did that exit come about? Did you not really see eye to eye with AVB?
Ella Spencer, via Facebook

Andre Villas-Boas wasn’t the ideal coach for me. He bought Gylfi Sigurdsson and then told me he would be his new No.10. I found that a little bit strange considering what I’d achieved over the previous two years. I started the first match of the season on the subs’ bench, so when Hamburg approached me, I thought it was a nice opportunity to go back. But I shouldn’t have left Tottenham, though it’s always easy to say that with hindsight. I had some brilliant times during my second spell in Hamburg, but the fact that we were in the relegation play-off in the second and third seasons wasn’t good.

Where has it all gone wrong for Hamburg since your first spell there? They were Champions League regulars back then, but now they seem to be struggling at the bottom every season...
Marko Weisz, via Twitter

I don’t know. To be honest, when I moved back to Hamburg I was underwhelmed with the quality of their squad, especially as I’d come from such a good team at Spurs. Still, we managed to go from bottom of the table up to seventh place. That was a big achievement.

You took your grandmother along to your unveiling at Real Betis – what was the story behind that? There is a picture where she was kissing you and you looked a bit embarrassed...
Michael Bachmeier, via Facebook

Not at all – it was great that she was able to be there. My grandparents on my mother’s side are from Spain and live not too far from Seville, so they came over to see my unveiling, as they did when I went to Real Madrid, too. It was great that they could attend.

How did your move to Midtjylland happen? Did you pick a team in Denmark because your partner currently plays handball there for Esbjerg?
David Hicks, Bolton

There were a few factors in my decision. Firstly, my girlfriend (Estavana Polman), plays handball in Esbjerg. She’s got a long, successful career ahead of her, so I was hoping that I could live quite close to her. At the same time, I wasn’t playing a lot for Betis and Midtjylland showed an interest, so it was a win-win situation. Also, I’m still not that far away from Hamburg, where my 11-year-old son from a previous marriage lives. [FFT: Have you ever played handball?] No, she hasn’t taught me anything yet!

What would say was the biggest mistake in your football career?
Luka Moran, London

Leaving Tottenham was not my best choice, but apart from that, there haven’t been too many big regrets during my career.

Be honest – do you ever wish that you’d been able to play in a different era when attacking midfielders and playmakers got appreciated by managers more, rather than now when they're asked to track back and do as much defensive work as the rest of the team?
Christine Venema, Amsterdam

I’ve experienced some good times, but yes, we seem to have experienced a tipping point. Nowadays, there’s a lot more emphasis on pace and power in teams, and technically refined players seem to have less of a chance to shine. I experienced that at Betis, three years ago. I started off pretty well, but then I picked up an injury and couldn’t get back in the team. The manager [Pepe Mel] told me that I was the best player on the ball but that he needed another kind of player in midfield.

When I saw the team, I couldn’t believe it – these players would kick the ball straight out of the stadium, but still get applauded as they were running around and doing lots of slide tackles. That’s not the kind of player I wanted to be. I hope the times when playmakers were appreciated more will come back again. Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Isco – those are the players that you want to go and watch week in, week out.

This feature originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

New features you'd love on