The first time I met Robin van Persie was at his home in the old Rotterdam neighbourhood of Jaffa. Robin was 19 and he lived with his father, the artist Bob van Persie. On the walls of the living-room were some of Bob’s collages of Feyenoord – Robin’s club at the time – and their stadium. On the walls and ceiling of the boy’s bedroom were football shirts, most of them collected at foreign tournaments.
Robin showed me his small collection of Diego Maradona memorabilia. In the eight-minute film I made that day, we talked about his teammates in the Holland under-19 team: Rafael van der Vaart, Johnny Heitinga, Nigel de Jong, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. How nice it would be to play with them in the “big” Dutch team one day. Eight years later, in 2010, all six of them appeared in the World Cup final against Spain.
In the years since that first meeting I have stayed in touch with this open boy who seemed so eager to learn. He has grown from a capricious, somewhat moody adolescent into a verbally gifted, grown-up family man, one of the few footballers I know who is capable of self-reflection and self-criticism. He is also one of a small minority of professional footballers who asks for the bill in a restaurant.
Now, at 28, as the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine gets under way on Friday, he is at a crossroads in his career, at national and club level. Will Holland recapture the traditional attacking football skills that once thrilled the world? The national side may have been World Cup finalists in 2010, but, as many Dutch fans lamented, where was the flair? And will his club, Arsenal, do enough to persuade him to stay in London, a decision that has nothing to do with salary?
Although Robin van Persie is the best of his peers (he was voted Footballer of the Year 2011/2012 by both the Professional Footballers’ Association and Football Writers’ Association in England), he can still admire talent in others. In 2011, when I interviewed him again for Dutch television, he was fulsome in his praise of Dennis Bergkamp, his compatriot who was Arsenal’s resident genius when the 20-year-old Van Persie joined the club in 2004: “I had such gigantic respect for that man. I sat next to him in the changing room. He had number 10, I had number 11, so every day I sat next to my idol. I once saw a training session of his that was proof to me that this man is bizarre. I’d already finished, and I was sitting in the bubble bath watching him train ... They were doing a passing exercise. In that 45-minute session, he didn’t hit a single bad pass. He didn’t make a mistake, everything 100 per cent, to the maximum. Passing in really hard, receiving the ball, bouncing it back at once – so beautiful. I thought it was art. In that way he gave me the answers I was looking for. It was his drive and concentration that opened my eyes. From that day on I knew I had a long way to go if I ever wanted to reach that level. From then on, I did every exercise 100 per cent. Because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”
Van Persie expresses that great ambition in the accent of the Dutch street, a mix of Moroccan, Dutch-Caribbean and authentic Rotterdam. He talks with a generosity and concentration that makes him a joy to interview; always conveying the immense ambition of the top-class athlete. He simply has to win. When I interviewed him for the Dutch magazine Hard Gras, he told me: “I have a table-tennis table at home. Everyone who comes to visit has to play a set against me. I’ve resolved never to lose one. I just smack them away.”
And because he absolutely has to win, that will be Arsenal’s problem: convincing Van Persie that his enormous ambition coincides with that of his club. Do Arsenal really want to win the league? Do they really want to win the Champions League? Van Persie wants to, and if he doesn’t recognise his own drive in the club, he will look elsewhere, however much he and his family enjoy life in village-like Hampstead; however much he enjoys a meal in one of the neighbourhood restaurants with his Arsenal buddy Thomas Vermaelen.
Arsenal’s recent signings have not convinced. Andrey Arshavin was expensive, inefficient and unpopular in the dressing room, Marouane Chamakh a mistake, Gervinho inadequate for the Premier League. And manager Arsène Wenger’s protection of the young midfielder Aaron Ramsey, with his deficient view of the game and meagre statistics (only two goals and four assists all season), doesn’t help much either.
On the positive side, Wenger did buy the playmaker Mikel Arteta, who within six months has become a true Arsenal player, the bedrock of their passing game. Incidentally, instead of Ramsey in midfield, Arsenal could have had Van Persie’s compatriot Rafael van der Vaart. “Would you like to come and play for us?” Van Persie had asked him. Van der Vaart, then out of favour at Real Madrid, had not believed his ears. With Van der Vaart on the left, Van Persie would know exactly when and where to expect the ball. Unfortunately, Wenger didn’t believe in Van der Vaart, even though he would have cost just £8m – peanuts when compared with Arshavin’s £15m. Van der Vaart joined Arsenal’s arch-rivals, Spurs, in 2010 and has since scored four goals against Arsenal. In one game at White Hart Lane, he put the ball through the legs of his opposite number at Arsenal, Jack Wilshere, twice in 10 seconds, then stuck out his tongue at him.
Van Persie has repeatedly expressed his admiration for teammates Arteta, Alex Song and Theo Walcott. But he still misses the team’s former playmaker, Cesc Fàbregas, who, since moving to Barcelona, has been unable to find his old form. Van Persie calls Fàbregas’s assists “art”. He speaks lyrically about the frequency with which Fàbregas could put a forward unmarked in front of the keeper. Usually that forward was Van Persie.
“Cesc is slow, you know,” he told me. “With us he was one of the slowest. And yet he was the fastest of us all. He always thinks two seconds ahead. I’d sometimes think, ‘Why doesn’t the opponent take the ball from him?’ Then, peep, he’d do a little feint. At training once I was running three, four metres behind him. I caught up and thought, ‘Now I’ll get you.’ But with the point of his boot he gives – peep! – a tiny little pass for a one-two. That gives him another metre and a half. I catch up with him again, but – peep! – he suddenly turns away with a body feint. So irritating! We strikers could always expect a deep ball from him. Most midfielders look sideways first, and then maybe forward. Cesc always looked forward first.”
Cesc is still missed. Arsenal fans cannot expect another season – such as this – of 30 goals without a playmaker to feed Van Persie. In March 2011, when I came to London to interview him again, for a Dutch TV documentary, he told me that a team’s playmaker has to form a two-in-one unit with the striker. And Arsenal realise that Van Persie believes this. Not for nothing did their scout Gilles Grimandi recently watch Montpellier’s Moroccan playmaker Younès Belhanda. Not for nothing are the names of playmakers Eden Hazard and Yoann Gourcuff so often linked with Arsenal. But can they fill the hole left by Fàbregas’ departure? The only way that Van Persie can find the playmaker he craves could be by following the little Spaniard to Barcelona.
But if the passes don’t come, a striker like Van Persie can cover 12km a game without touching the ball more than five times. That is one of Holland’s problems. Although the results-at-all-costs element of the Dutch fanbase cheered the returning World Cup finalists on their procession along the canals of Amsterdam, those who admire the so-called Dutch school of attacking football were appalled by the rough type of play they had seen from Holland during the campaign.
A striker is dependent on supply, and in the 2010 World Cup Robin van Persie depended chiefly on Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. While both are world-class, Robben doesn’t like sharing the ball, making him the target of his teammates’ ire at his club, Bayern Munich. Bayern’s Franck Ribéry recently gave him a black eye in a dispute over who was to take a free kick. In June 2011 Van Persie was substituted in a game against Brazil and uncharacteristically disappeared to the changing-room without a word: Robben had blatantly ignored him when he was totally unmarked in front of goal. Van Persie said afterwards, “I shouldn’t have walked away. That was wrong of me. But I just see football differently from Robben.”
It’s the same problem with Sneijder. Van Persie depends on his passes, but Sneijder always looks for his own chance first. He scored five times at the World Cup; Van Persie once. “However hard I find it to accept, I wasn’t on top of my game,” he told me in March 2011, adding: “In the whole World Cup, I was only put [through] in front of the keeper four or five times. Cesc did it four or five times a match.”
Structurally, little has changed in the Holland team in the two years since the World Cup, which, with Euro 2012 fast approaching, is a worry. But because Bert van Marwijk is a conservative coach, big changes in the line-up are not to be expected. If Dirk Kuyt is preferred once more over the skilful Barcelona player Ibrahim Afellay, Van der Vaart will be benched and Sneijder’s and Robben’s selfishness will go unchallenged by the coaching staff. Yet again, the Dutch school of play will be absent.
As the summer transfer season beckons, so too do talks with a club that doesn’t want to let Robin van Persie go – a team that, after unsuccessful first talks on May 17, has anxiously forbidden him to talk to the press, even the Dutch. Meanwhile, Van Persie continues to live for the game. He once told me: “You know what’s so beautiful about football? When you train, you see progress so quickly. After training I was always busy with [former teammate Mathieu] Flamini. Smacking passes hard at each other – having to tame a bullet, as it were. I find that so sexy.”
Nowadays he occupies himself with Walcott, the Arsenal winger who scores far too rarely given how often his searing pace has put him alone in front of goal. After formal training sessions end, Van Persie passes to Walcott 20, 30 metres from goal. Then Walcott has to sprint, watch what the keeper does, concentrate and finish. I remember a recent goal against Aston Villa that may well have been a result of that extra work. The nice thing about Van Persie is that however freighted with the ruthlessness that his profession teaches, he has remained the boy who used to dribble through the streets and squares of old Rotterdam.
“When I was young I wore a tracksuit every day. I did my shopping with the ball, I went to school with the ball, I did everything with the ball,” he said. “Other boys would take the tram, but if I went to see somebody I’d put on my tracksuit, get the ball and go off dribbling. It goes much quicker, too, because you’re busy with something. You see someone walking along the pavement and you think, ‘Hey, an opponent’, and by then you’re already past them. You’re always busy controlling the ball. If you go to the Kralingen neighbourhood in Rotterdam, just ask how I used to do my shopping there. I used to drive the grocer there crazy. Even in the shop I’d juggle the ball, on my feet, my knees, and then someone would walk past and I’d put the ball through his legs. Thinking back, it might have been extreme. But really, I’m still a bit like that. Funny, isn’t it?”
Henk Spaan is a football columnist, television presenter and editor of Dutch football magazine “Hard Gras”.