Two summers ago Real Madrid made it clear that they would go to whatever length to ensure that Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder would not be at the Bernabeu come the end of the transfer window. The manner in which Florentino Perez, the Madrid president, and his managerial puppet at the time, Manuel Pellegrini attempted to rid the team dressing room of any Dutch influence was alarming.
Robben and Sneijder were the highest profile departures in the wake of Perez’s astonishingly public anti-dutch campaign, but they were not alone in being pushed towards the door. Their fellow Dutch internationals Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart were also deemed surplus to requirements, Pellegrini going as far as assigning their squad numbers to other players. Van der Vaart was the sole survivor of the Oranje cull, and was eventually given his number 23 shirt back after the transfer window had closed.
Huntelaar made his way to AC Milan where he made an unremarkable impact on a team of decaying former world-beaters, but it was the performances of Robben and Sneijder in the 2009-2010 season that will have had Perez and his cronies cursing their decision-making skills, or lack of them. Right from the beginning of August up until the World Cup final, both players enjoyed superb seasons for club and country.
Robben continued his nomadic journey around Europe’s elite clubs by signing for Bayern Munich in a deal worth £25m that would set up an exciting partnership with Franck Ribery. A Robben-inspired Bayern team dominated domestically, winning the Bundesliga and the German Cup.
However it was in the Champions League that Robben really excelled, with crucial goals in the knockout stages against Fiorentina, Manchester United and Lyon. By the time of the competitions conclusion in late May, the competition for best goal had begun to look like a Robben Youtube highlight reel. In the Champions League Final they came up against a Wesley Sneijder-inspired Inter Milan and fell victim to two clinical Diego Milito strikes. The dream of a treble was over but Bayern had still had their most successful season in years, largely thanks to the brilliant performances and goals of Arjen Robben.
Where Robben failed Sneijder succeeded. Inter won Serie A, the Italian Cup and most importantly of all, the Champions League, completing a historic treble under the guidance of Jose Mourinho.
That Robben and Sneijder would be fighting it out to be crowned champion of Europe seemed all the more ironic considering the setting. The Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid’s home ground. The same ground they had been chased from just 9 months before. It would be impossible for Perez and Pellegrini, the latter being well on his way to a redundancy package by this point, not to see the outstanding talents they had worked so tirelessly to sell.
The two then played major parts in Holland’s run to the World Cup Final in South Africa, Sneijder contributing 5 goals, often in crucial games while Robben, even carrying an injury, looked like one of the most dangerous players in the tournament.
Real Madrid have a policy of buying players who have performed brilliantly the season before, they have signed 7 of the past 12 Ballon d’Or winners, yet none of them have won this prestigious award whilst at the club. So Real had a problem. Who to buy? So they took Mourinho.
The idea that Dutch players are incompatible with Real Madrid as a club seems ridiculous. But maybe they are. The most talented players from Holland often come through the famed Ajax academy, or one of the impressive academies at PSV and Feyenoord. The Dutch, largely down to Johan Cruyff and the fantastic Ajax and Holland teams of the 70s, have an obsession with technique and positional flexibility. This may be what stopped Robben and Sneijder from succeeding at Madrid. The Dutch have so much confidence and self-belief that they struggle in environments where they believe their talents are not truly appreciated. The academies instil a sense of invincibility, with the other side of the coin being a serious vulnerability when confronted with failure.
Under the care of the correct manager, at the correct team, they will thrive. As Bayern Munich and Inter Milan fans can testify. Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho knew exactly how to coax the best out of Robben and Sneijder respectively. The kind of care they received is exactly what they needed, and is exactly what was missing at Real. Hard-working, successful teams were built around them and they repaid their managers faith with some outstanding performances last season.
So, Real Madrid wouldn’t be stupid enough to let another Ajax academy graduate leave the Bernabeu for a fraction of his actual value, would they?
Hours before the transfer window closed on August 31st 2009, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy phoned his manager Harry Redknapp and informed him that there would be an £8m present waiting for him at training the next day. That present was Rafael van der Vaart.
So for the price of a 1/3 of James Milner, Levy had signed a player with World Cup final experience and Champions League experience, who had come through the Ajax academy with flying colours yet was strangely deemed surplus to requirements in Madrid. A series of superb performances including 4 goals in his first 3 home games, secured him a place in Spurs fans hearts forevermore. He has been one of the outstanding players in the premiership this seasons and is being described as the bargain of the summer.
As Gary Lineker opened the first ball in the Champions League Quarter-Final draw this morning to reveal Real Madrid there will have only been one team van der Vaart wanted them to be paired against. As fate would have it, he was in luck.
April 5th 2011. Real Madrid vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Watch out Perez, Rafael’s coming.