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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 July, 2005, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Whatever happened to Rafael van der Vaart?
By Martin Richardson

Rafael van der Vaart at his official presentation at Hamburg
What is Rafael van der Vaart doing in Hamburg?
Johan Cruyff

Despite it being a quiet summer for transfers in England, a deal on the continent that may have slipped under the radar is the one involving Ajax captain Rafael van der Vaart.

It has been expected for a number of years - ever since he made his debut as a 17-year-old, in fact - that Van der Vaart would be the next Dutch superstar for both club and country.

But instead of joining one of Europe's leading clubs, such as Manchester United, Real Madrid or AC Milan, Van der Vaart has signed with German side Hamburg SV.

On the face of it you may pose the question; what has happened to the Dutch wunderkind?

Two years ago he was being touted as one of the continent's brightest young stars; a sign of the resurgence of Dutch club Ajax's fabled youth system.

So to be making his debut for his new club in the second round of the Intertoto Cup last Sunday seems to represent a spectacular fall from grace.

Dutch legend Johan Cruyff is among those perplexed by the transfer.

"I don't know what to say about it or what Rafael van der Vaart is doing in Hamburg," Cruyff said in his newspaper column in De Telegraaf.

Hamburg, while being able to boast a 55,000-capacity stadium and the distinction of being the only ever-present in the Bundesliga's 42-year history, have long since ceased to be counted among the continent's top clubs.

Their last successes of note came in the year Van der Vaart was born - a Bundesliga and European Cup double in 1983.

"This would not have been thinkable two years ago, obviously things have not gone well for Van der Vaart," added Cruyff.

The truth is that Van der Vaart has felt forced from his local club - where he had played his football since the age of 10 - because of the pressures of captaining the ailing giants and the glare of the media spotlight, which focused on his relationship with television presenter and ex-model Sylvie Meis.

Compared, not unreasonably on both a professional and personal level, to David and Victoria Beckham, van der Vaart and his now wife were viciously targeted by opposition fans in the Eredivisie.

Rafael van der Vaart and his wife Sylvie
Rafael and Sylvie wed only days after his transfer was completed
Anti-Semitic chants directed at Meis and unfounded verbal assaults on her character were bad enough for the referee to halt a match at ADO Den Haag in September last year and warn the spectators, via the stadium announcer, that the match could be abandoned - a subject discussed in the Dutch parliament soon afterwards.

The pressures of this, combined with his own trough in form and worsening relationship with coach Ronald Koeman and his successor Danny Blind, led van der Vaart to announce towards the end of last season that he would be seeking a transfer abroad.

But still his choice of a cut-price 3.5m switch to the north German club has come as a complete surprise.

"When I came to Hamburg I was welcomed with open arms and the atmosphere just felt right," the 22-year-old told the German news website Netzeitung after his official presentation in June.

"I don't want people to think this is just a stepping stone for me, I want to achieve things with Hamburg.

"It's important for me to be playing in European competition. We will start in the Intertoto Cup and hopefully progress to the Uefa Cup and eventually I'll play in the Champions League again."

Whether Van der Vaart will find life quieter in Germany, as he admits he wants it to be, remains to be seen.

And, with one national newspaper already devoting a daily column to the movements of Frau van der Vaart, it may not happen.

But there are also sound sporting considerations behind his switch to Hamburg.

The Bundesliga is a stronger league than the domestic competition in the Netherlands, the spotlight will be on the country ahead of the World Cup and, perhaps crucially, there is a strong tradition of the role of a true playmaker behind the strikers, which Van der Vaart sees as his best position.

The 'Little Angel' as he is known, is likely to be as well received in Hamburg as the club's last signing of European note, 'Mighty Mouse' Kevin Keegan.

But hauling the club back to the top of the tree domestically, let alone in Europe, will be a tough task and without success Van der Vaart is unlikely to stay put for long.


SEE ALSO
Transfers - July 2005
11 Jul 05 |  Gossip & Transfers
Summer transfers in photos
11 Jul 05 |  Photo Galleries


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