Edwin van der Sar

When someone decided to write the biography of Edwin van der Sar, Manchester United’s goalkeeper felt obliged to point out the problem. He was genuinely worried that the would-be-biographer, his fellow Dutchman Jaap Visser, might struggle to find anything interesting to say about a career almost entirely devoid of scandal, glitz or traditional footballing excess. “I’m sorry,” said Van der Sar, “I’m just not very rock’n’roll.”

The 40-year-old keeper plays the last match of his career Saturday – the little matter of the Champions League final between United and Barcelona – after 20 years in the game. Yet after all that time, he remains a blurry, undefined figure to most fans.

Peter Schmeichel, his blond Manchester United predecessor, used to bully teammates, scream at opponents and hurl himself around like a crazed octopus. Sometimes even his manager Alex Ferguson became alarmed.

Gianluigi Buffon, the great Italian keeper, is a showman with an expressive face and stylish outfits. When he soars improbable distances to make spectacular saves, he celebrates by shouting, pumping his clenched fists and kicking his goalposts.

By contrast, Van der Sar’s placid demeanour has earned him the Dutch nickname ijskonijn (ice rabbit). Although he is big, strong and agile he prefers to play without fuss. He marshals his defence like a Soviet chess master and calculates the angles. Usually he places his defenders so precisely that opponents cannot even muster a shot at goal. On the rare occasions a shot actually reaches him, he’s invariably in the right place to catch it or bat it away with the minimum of spectacle.

Van der Sar’s genius is to hide the fact that he is a genius. As the Dutch novelist and amateur goalkeeper Chris Keulemans marvels: “Van der Sar is fundamentally different. He is very strong but also very careful, serious and respectful towards the ball. He is not aggressive. He doesn’t attack the ball like other goalkeepers. He cares about it. His technique is sensitive, masterful. Some goalkeepers regard the ball as the enemy because it is trying to penetrate their sacred area. But Van der Sar seems to welcome the ball, regard it as his ally, his friend.”

Keulemans likens Holland’s most capped player – 130 games for his country – to the men at airports who guide giant planes on the ground with nothing more than little signs and arm movements. “Van der Sar has this vast force coming at him: the game, the stadium, the whole power of the attack, yet he has this very clear vision and manoeuvres everything in front of him calmly.”

Part of Van der Sar’s mystique – in the Netherlands he enjoys the status of a secular saint – is that he really is a decent, simple, loyal family man, devoted to his two children and happy in the company of his oldest friends. When his wife Annemarie suffered a suspected stroke, triggered by a suspected brain haemorrhage, he took a complete break from the game to nurse her. She’s now recovering.

He is not always delicate, however. “He has terribly strong hands,” reveals Visser, “and he uses them to intimidate his opponents in the pre-match handshake. Watch carefully and you sometimes see opponents wincing. It’s his way of saying: ‘I’m Edwin van der Sar, don’t mess with me’, and he does it in a special way. He gives you his hand then crushes your thumb. He once showed me how he does it and I had to check I still had all my fingers afterwards.”

The thought of the Ice Rabbit behaving like Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV (“You will lose! I must break you!”) makes my head spin. Then the thrill of understanding kicks in. Of course! Being a pussycat is not how you reach your fifth Champions League final at 40, win seven league championships and break the English league record by going a total of 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal. You cannot become the dominant figure in the Manchester United dressing room – and have Sir Alex Ferguson say of you that his biggest mistake in management was not signing you years earlier – by merely being a nice guy.

The quiet lad from the village of Voorhout was a late developer. Had Ruud Bröring, coach of the youth team of the fishing town of Noordwijk, not liked card games we might never have heard of Van der Sar at all.

In 1989, Bröring played cards regularly with Louis van Gaal, then assistant coach at Ajax. One night Van Gaal mentioned that he needed a goalkeeper; Bröring offered Van der Sar. Other candidates were better shot-stoppers, but Van Gaal took a look at the willowy teenager and was impressed by his ability to read the game. He signed Van der Sar and proceeded to lavish huge attention on him – two training sessions a day – to build him into a new kind of goalkeeper.

The idea had originated with Holland’s “Total Football” side of the 1974 World Cup, when Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels turned the relatively unknown Jan Jongbloed into an extra defender who could play 20 metres from goal and use his feet. Jongbloed usually just ran from goal and hoofed the ball into touch. Van Gaal, soon appointed Ajax head coach, had something more sophisticated in mind: to turn Van der Sar into the first “sweeper-keeper”, the pivot of his new, high-speed “circulation football” (which became, among other things, the precursor to the current Barcelona style).

At first, Van der Sar was overawed by Ajax’s popular goalkeeper of the time, Stanley Menzo, and felt so out of his depth that he asked to be transferred to mediocre FC Den Haag. But Van Gaal persisted. When Menzo made two blunders in a game against Auxerre, Van Gaal installed Van der Sar as the Ajax keeper. While Menzo fell into a depression, Van der Sar became a linchpin of the brilliant young team. After Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 he was acclaimed as Europe’s best goalkeeper. The golden Ajax broke up quickly, but Van der Sar stayed in Amsterdam until 1999.

In Manchester, Ferguson heard he was planning to leave and urged his chairman, Martin Edwards, to sign him as a replacement for Peter Schmeichel, who was on his way to Sporting Lisbon. Edwards refused, saying the club had just bought Roy Carroll and there was no need or money for another keeper.

Van der Sar almost signed for Liverpool, where Gérard Houllier enticed him with promises of building a great new team around him. When the Dutchman visited Anfield, however, he learned that the Reds’ “big” summer signings consisted of Sami Hyypia, from the little Dutch club Willem II. Van der Sar backed off and instead allowed himself – with near-disastrous consequences – to be seduced by the Old Lady of Turin. Juventus promised the earth, even offering to ditch their traditional approach and play in the Dutch style. In his very first game, Van der Sar discovered this would not, in fact, be the case. When he played one of his usual passes to Paolo Montero, the defender panicked, booted it into touch, and screamed at Van der Sar for giving him an “impossible” ball. Van der Sar looked to the bench for support and saw coach Carlo Ancelotti joining in the abuse.

Juventus, it turned out, wanted him to forget his Dutch ways and play like an Italian, as a shot-stopper who stayed on his line. As his confidence disintegrated, TV mocked him as “the man with butter on his hands”. Italian media nicknamed him Van der Gol.

Meanwhile, from Barcelona, where Louis van Gaal had become coach, came word that he wanted to sign Van der Sar again. Unwisely, the keeper decided to stay in Italy and prove his critics wrong. Within a year, however, he was consulting a therapist and telling his agent he no longer trusted himself even to catch a ball. In 2001 Juve paid a world-record fee to buy Buffon from Parma, and Van der Sar had to leave.

In some respects he had had a lucky escape. Behind the scenes Juventus was rotten with corruption, though he hadn’t noticed. Only later, when systematic doping, match-fixing and referee-nobbling was revealed by a series of court cases did Van der Sar realise why club director Luciano Moggi spent all his time talking into two mobiles simultaneously while covering his mouth with his hand.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, Roy Carroll had been a disaster and United were busy recruiting goalkeepers such as Andy Goram, a mild schizophrenic hailed on the terraces with the chant: “There’s only two Andy Gorams.”

Van der Sar was rescued, after a fashion, by Fulham, whose owner Mohamed al-Fayed was promising to turn the club into “the Manchester United of southern England”. Van der Sar wasn’t silly enough to believe this, but agreed to join the little Londoners in return for a fantastic salary. He bought himself a beautiful villa in Richmond.

Van Gaal, by now coaching the Dutch national side, reassured him: “Don’t worry, you’ll have a great World Cup and the world’s big clubs will want you again.” But Holland failed to qualify for the 2002 tournament. He would be stuck at Craven Cottage for four years.

The club he really wanted to join was Arsenal, not by chance another London club. He and his family loved life in Richmond and had no desire to leave the capital. He always made a point of playing brilliantly against Arsenal. But Arsène Wenger failed to take the hint and in 2005 Alex Ferguson, tiring of his never-ending procession of hopeless would-be successors to Schmeichel, asked Ruud van Nistelrooy if his fellow Dutchman was still fit and ambitious. “Yes he is,” said the striker. Edwin van der Sar finally became a Man U man.

He had never stopped working to improve himself and had even erased his one obvious weakness – penalties. In 1996 he had lost the European Cup Final with Ajax on a shootout, and the Euro 96 quarter-final with Holland as well. He repeated the bitter experience in the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, both of which Holland should have won.

By contrast, his predecessor in the national team, Hans van Breukelen, had been a penalty king, winning the European Cup for PSV Eindhoven in a shootout and saving a Russian spot-kick in the final of Euro 88. On Dutch TV, Van der Sar mentioned that he yearned for a “Van Breukelen moment” when he too could become such a hero. Van Breukelen offered to help, and the two met. Van Breukelen explained that saving penalties was not, as Van der Sar had believed, a matter of luck or guesswork, but of research. He urged Van der Sar to devote himself to the study of opponents’ shooting techniques.

It worked. In Euro 2004, Holland won a shootout for the first time, against Sweden. Van der Sar saved three penalties in a row against Chelsea in the 2007 Community Shield. And in the 2008 Champions League final, against the same opponents, he enjoyed his finest moment. Chelsea’s players had been advised to shoot to Van der Sar’s left, as he too often dived right on penalties. As Nicolas Anelka ran up to take the final penalty, the goalkeeper pointed left, meaning: “I know what you’re going to do”. Anelka hesitated, changed his mind and shot feebly to the other side. Van der Sar made the save and, unusually for him, punched the air.

Later the same year, he exacted revenge on Italy, captaining Holland to a 3-0 victory over the world champions in Euro 2008. In a reversal of traditional roles, Holland defended for most of the game and Van der Sar made save after save. After the match, Gianluigi Buffon hugged him warmly and said: “Edwin, now you are the greatest goalkeeper in the world.” Van Breukelen agrees: “Edwin is absolutely Holland’s greatest ever. He is a jewel as a man – and to a generation of goalkeepers.”

As he approaches his last match, the Champions League final, he will be his cool, unsentimental self. Van der Sar’s anti-flamboyance doesn’t delight everyone. “He is too normal,” says Jan Mulder, the Dutch writer, former Ajax and Holland striker and football romantic. “He is the gentleman who walks with his wife on a Saturday to buy a sensible jacket. I liked it better when goalkeepers had to be … not crazy but interesting, and beautiful, and women had to adore them.”

Edwin van der Sar has never thought that way. Jaap Visser relates what happened when the biographer told the keeper that his own boyhood hero had been the great Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin. Visser recalls: “I said that when I was an amateur goalkeeper I always dreamed of making great saves like Lev Yashin, and of course I never did make great saves like Lev Yashin, but I liked him so much I named my son Lev. Edwin looked at me like I’m mad, and said: ‘Are you absolutely crazy? What did your wife think?’ I said she loved the name, and he said: ‘Well OK, then. I suppose Lev is a lovely name’, but as he walked away I could see he was still shaking his head.”

David Winner is the author of ‘Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’. To comment on this article, please e-mail: magazineletters@ft.com

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