The Artist’s Boy
Robin van Persie was shaped by the Rotterdam in which he grew up
He must have been about 10 years old when I saw him playing for the first time. It was on a lazy Sunday afternoon in a children’s playground in our neighbourhood, Kralingen, the most beautiful part of Rotterdam, a green area enclosed by the river Maas, the centre and Kralingse Bos en Plas, the biggest wood and lake in town.
My three-year-old daughter was playing on the swing and the slide with other toddlers and I sat down in the sun to watch the older kids playing football in the cage, a small football pitch surrounded by wire mesh. I recognised one of them, Robin, the son of my friend Bob who was always talking about him, telling me how he was bound to be a global superstar and teasing me that I should write about him even when he was six years old.
The rest of the kids were Moroccan. Much later I realised that two of them were Said Boutahar (Zaragoza and Al Wakrah) and Mounir Hamdaoui (AZ and Ajax), other kids who went on to be professionals. Robin always hung around with them. He spoke like them, with the same accent and the staccato way of speaking. He was one of them. And played like them, fixated on doing a new trick, fixated on doing a panna (a nutmeg).
I enjoyed watching them play. They didn’t fight to win, but for enjoyment and entertainment. And my friend’s son was the best. Every ball he touched, with his left foot, exclusively the left, was like he was caressing his girl. He mixed slow and speedy moves like a bartender his cocktails. And at kicking the ball he was brilliant.
And then it happened. One of the kids blocked an opponent and the ball was launched up to the stars and landed in a garden next to the cage. At once we heard some animal growling. An enormously fat creature, apparently drunk, came out of his house shouting, “You African bastards! I told you to fuck off...” But just as he bent over to confiscate the ball, one of the kids jumped over the barrier into the garden, pulled the ball with his left foot towards his heel, and flicked the ball up to grab it away from the fat guy.
The fat guy was furious and made to kick the hell out of the boy but the kid was too quick and leapt away with great elegance. Footballing ability saved him. The fat guy, having swung too hard, lost balance. He spun 180 degrees and collapsed with a terrible cracking of bones. He lay, screaming, in the garden and the boys ran away. They had no reason to: they were entitled to play there and they’d been attacked by a drunken racist.
“I was there! I was there!” Robin shouted, jumping up from his seat when, years later, I visited him in London where he was slowly making his mark at Arsenal, breaking into the team of Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry. “That fat guy was always nagging, insulting and bothering us,” he said. “He broke his leg all by himself. But after that incident we chose another playground nearby.”
From being just a friend’s son he became a local phenomenon, who drew special attention. I saw him frequently on the street, always with a ball, always. Going to school, he would have the ball at his feet, making feints against every lamppost on his way. Going to the shop for his father, he would keep the ball up, preventing it from touching the ground. But he didn’t stop when he entered the store. With the ball in the air, he grabbed what his father had ordered, paid and went off, the ball still dancing. The owner of the shop was an extremely friendly Pakistani man, who smiled an almost offensive amount. He liked Robin but sometimes he lost his smile. Robin had a habit of dribbling with the ball through the store making pannas on customers. Some people hated that, were scared or irritated, but the kid just couldn’t resist.
Or, balancing the ball in the air, he would kick it gently with his heel against the large window of some bar, shop or office, take it smoothly and walk on. Behind him you saw the heads of surprised people asking themselves what the noise had been. “Football has always been my great love,” Van Persie says today. “I slept with a ball — really! Even when I started going out with Bouchra — ouha! She must have thought, ‘What’s this...?’ When I was five I joined a club, Excelsior, the club of Kralingen, in the first division. I was always training. On a free afternoon I did individual work with Aad Putters, my youth trainer. Not with the idea growing to be a star, but for fun. I didn’t want to do anything else. When friends wanted to go to the centre of town, they took a bus or tram. I took the ball and went running after them. School was hell, because I had to put the ball on the ground. Outside I was free, playing the ball.”
In the early nineties I began to believe the story Bob had told me years earlier when he was still married to José, an artist like himself. José was a painter, Bob was dedicated to sculptures. A fortune-teller told him he would have three children, first two daughters and then a son. “When it comes true,” a disbelieving Bob said to the woman, “I’ll come back to you to hear the rest...” Two weeks after Robin’s birth in August 1983 (coming as brother to Lily and Kiki) he went back to the fortune-teller and she told him that his son would struggle at school but would be a king on the pitch: “A football star is born. He will be rich and famous.”
Bob wasn’t convinced, but he wanted to believe the woman. When Robin began to walk, he started having him practise with balloons, light and easy, like balls in slow motion. Then there came a gap. The marriage with José broke up and Bob moved out. Years later, when Robin was nearly six years, José stood in Bob’s doorway. Bob was then living in the Jaffadwarsstraat, in a modest but cosy home at the back of Kralingen. Alone. José was desperate. “Can Robin live with you?” she asked. “He’s unmanageable and only wants to deal with you.”
“The problem with the kid,” Bob van Persie explained to me, “was that he was hyperactive. Not ADHD: then you have to be treated. Robin just had to use up his energy, that was all. At first he did a lot of mischief on the street. For the first time I had to be hard on him, punish him. Then he met his Moroccan bunch and found his soul-mates. From that moment he started to breathe, eat and dream football. That was the salvation. You know that he trained one of the younger teams of Excelsior when he was only twelve years old? Quite fanatically but just for fun. Besides eating and sleeping he was busy only with football. School was a huge problem. I was ordered to show up for the school board. They held me responsible for Robin’s conduct, for him never paying attention and not doing homework at all: “School is more important for his future than football, sir.” But Robin and I didn’t agree...”
At 13 years old, Van Persie joined Feyenoord, a top club with a more professional training set-up. After a couple of years he had emerged as a prime talent and, on 3 February 2002, he made his debut for the first team. A few months later, he played in the Uefa Cup final. Feyenoord won. The fans, at first, were crazy about him. Van Persie was a local hero in no time. On a national level, he was chosen as Talent of the Season for 2001-02.
So far, so good. But suddenly, it all went wrong. As quickly as he’d risen, Van Persie was knocked down again, his enemy Pierre van Hooijdonk ready to give the blow. On March 31 that year there’d been an embarrassing clash between the two players in front of 50,000 fans when Feyenoord played RKC. Van Persie, having been in the team only just over a month, pushed his older teammate away to take a free-kick to the right side of goal. As a left-footer, he thought he should be taking it. He produced a brilliant shot that forced the goalkeeper to turn the ball away from the very corner of his goal but Big Pierre was furious, and so was the coach, Bert van Marwijk. Van Hooijdonk would not forget this humiliation and waited for his chance to get even.
After winning the Uefa Cup, Van Persie started walking around with his head in the clouds. He developed an attitude. He didn’t like the mid-range car made available for the players by sponsors and bought himself a trendy Mercedes sports car. In training and in matches, the rest of the squad began to be irritated by the non-conformist youngsters. Internationals like Van Hooijdonk and Paul Bosvelt made the rules. Kids like Van Persie had to shut up or they were kicked down and humiliated. But this new kid on the block was not like that.
Before the start of the new season Van Hooijdonk and Bosvelt asked for a talk with the coach and demanded that Van Persie be treated properly. They wanted him relegated to the bench and he was. When Feyenoord qualified for the Champions League on 27 August 2002, after a tense game against Fenerbahçe, the situation exploded. 15 minutes before the end of the game Van Persie was sent by his coach to warm up. But after a couple of minutes he asked Van Persie to sit down, because — he thought — the forward wasn’t motivated. Van Persie was furious and when Van Marwijk shook hands with everybody after the final whistle, he refused. It was the beginning of the end. For the next two years, he was at war.
Van Marwijk later became national coach. Before working with Van Persie, they thrashed things out. Van Marwijk still believes he did the right thing. “I was the first one to be hard on him,” he said. “He’d never been criticised in his youth. Hopefully some day he will understand it was good for him. I put everything in place for him.”
It’s probably a vain hope. “I have never felt the trust of the people who didn’t stop criticising me,” Van Persie said. “At the end I sat on the bench at Feyenoord believing I wasn’t good enough to be a number 10 and that I even was just an average left-winger. When people are always nagging you, you stop listening and become stubborn. When I made a mistake at Feyenoord they always tore hell out of me. It is possible to criticise constructively.”
Apparently, Van Persie has other ways of dealing with young players. “When you had problems, Robin was always there for you,” said his former Arsenal teammate Carl Jenkinson. “Especially for the youngsters. He was approachable and always prepared to listen to the opinion of others. Also on the pitch he always set the right example. You could say he was the perfect captain.”
In the summer of 2002 Robin still wasn’t so old and wise. He had a long and hard way to go to the top, to be a perfect pro. Partly because he was a rebel and partly because of the questionable management of Van Marwijk, he lost two valuable seasons. Until 15 April 2004, he made no progress, playing only a handful of first-team games and turning out mostly for the seconds, Young Feyenoord.
But 15 April 2004 would be a key date in his career. Young Feyenoord were playing Young Ajax, their biggest rivals. There were 4000 fans there, clustering close to the players, who had no protection: no stewards, just low fences. The fanatical part of the Amsterdam public, drinking beer and smoking pot, jeered him, spitting at him, abusing him and throwing drinks over him. But Van Persie stayed calm and played superbly. He knew that Arsenal’s chief scout, Steve Rowley, was watching him. Seeing him battling against a stronger team and aggressive spectators, he decided he had seen enough.
Near the end, Van Persie scored to make it 1-1 and celebrated by blowing a kiss to the Ajax fans. After the final whistle, 40 thugs chased after him. He was punched and kicked and forced to the ground. Only with intense efforts from his teammates and Ajax players was he freed and guided to safety. “I don’t want to exaggerate,” Van Persie said, “but I thought I was going to die. When you’re unconscious on the ground and they stick a knife in you it’s over. For a few weeks after I couldn’t sleep, or I’d wake up bathed in sweat after another nightmare. I had to do something and went to a psychotherapist who helped me out.”
Guus Hiddink, the manager of PSV, had been watching Van Persie for some time, but when Rowley called the day after the nightmare in Amsterdam, the decision was easy enough to make. Van Persie joined Arsenal.
At the end of that year I visited Robin in London. Arsène Wenger had decided to bring him through slowly and my friend’s son was playing for the second team, but he was talking now with laughter in his eyes. “A few minutes chatting with Arsène Wenger were enough,” he said. “I knew I could trust this man. He is as crazy about football as I am. He says I am good but that I have to be patient. While negotiating he said to me, ‘When you dribble past [Sol] Campbell and [Kolo] Touré in training, you can play!’ That was all I wanted to hear. I gave Arsenal my word straightaway.”
He spoke enthusiastically about his new surroundings. “The first two months were hell,” he said. “I had to follow a special training regime with a guy called Tony, who’d been in the navy. I was dead every night. But now I’m training with Thierry, Pires, Bergkamp! I am only watching what’s going on around me... filling myself like a sponge with everything I see. Pires had been injured and played with us in the second team. We had a combination knocking the ball over six players, all one touch... that’s life, that’s pure happiness! I’m close, man, I’m so close now, I am touching the sky, close to the top.”
But in the weeks that followed, I noticed from afar that Robin wasn’t so close to the top. There were still a couple of lessons to be learned.
At the beginning there was Dennis Bergkamp, teaching Robin what to do and how to do it. He watched games over again to learn to be self-critical. Steve Rowley told him there was something missing in his play — intelligence: there could be no risk in the midfield, only around the box — but that he had to find that out by himself. Rowley sent him a message after each game. Arsène Wenger, irritated by stupid yellow and red cards, was hard on him. Robin improved on the pitch but not in his private life. He rose, fell and got up all the time.
Soon after winning the FA Cup with Arsenal and making his debut for the Dutch national team, Robin found himself in a nightmare. At the beginning of June 2005, he was arrested in Rotterdam and accused of rape. He was held in prison for a few weeks and then released on parole.
After a night out, Robin had visited a hotel with a couple of friends and an erotic dancer, Sandra K. There was laughter, there was sex, but when the men hid her clothes as a joke, she left, irritated. Vitally, she didn’t tell the people she met in the hours after the party that she’d been raped, while a waiter at the hotel overheard her talking on the phone about the famous player she had been with. Later that day, she went to the police.
Months later, a judge decided to discontinue the case, concluding that there was no evidence of a crime and the woman’s evidence was contradictory. The shame for Robin remained. It took years to restore his image and it almost cost him his marriage. But his Moroccan wife Bouchra remained loyal. She believed in him and fought for him from the moment the scandal broke, looking for the best lawyer she could find. ¨My love is hurt,” she said, “but our friendship will survive it all.”
It would be the last scandal, the last lesson Robin had to learn: don’t hustle, don’t fool around, be there for the ones you love. In the years after the lowest point in his life he paid back the loyalty of his wife and he paid back Arsenal, paid back Wenger, who had never stopped believing in him and also paid back Rowley, another key figure in his life. Robin was 21 and — finally — an adult. Just in time.
Under Wenger, Van Persie developed into one of the best players in the world. He was twice Arsenal’s player of the year and in 2012-13 he was Manchester United’s, at least according to the fans’ vote (the players went for Michael Carrick). He became the ideal professional. A loyal husband. (“After all we have lived through, our relationship is stronger than ever.”) A dedicated father to a son and a daughter. An example for young players. Three times he fought back from serious injuries. Five years ago, one of them almost meant the end of his career.
Sometimes people ask me, “The son of that friend of yours, Robin van Persie... what’s he like?” I answer, “Healthy. Healthy in all kind of ways.” Robin thinks healthily and lives healthily. He watches what he eats, takes the rest a player needs, doesn’t smoke and never drinks alcohol. He has three activities. In order of importance, they are: his wife and children, football and table-tennis. He is boring in a spectacular way.
“At home in Manchester, I have a recreation room, like I had in London. I have all kinds of shirts on the wall. In the middle is a table-tennis table. Everybody who comes to my home has to play at least one set against me. I beat them all. The best thing is when they want another set. People like me who can’t stand not to win. I beat them again and again until they are furious, then I laugh. That’s funny.”
Once he was on holiday in Marbella, where he was a little bored, lying in the sun with all the family. “Suddenly I heard: tac... tac... tac..,” Robin said. “Wow! The neighbours are playing table-tennis. ‘I’m saved!’ I thought. I grabbed my friend and we went there to ask if we could play. They were English people. They didn’t mind. We didn’t play against them — they weren’t good enough. When we started playing you heard: tactactactac... ha! We played for an hour and then... pfff... the pressure was gone.”
That’s typical Robin.
He always worships the kid in himself. The artist. Not the money-maker. Not the collector of personal prizes. He is the player with the artist-blood of his parents in his veins. I remember a game two years ago. Robin was free in the box. He might have beaten AC Milan’s goalkeeper Christian Abiatti. But instead of killing the ball directly, he preferred to caress the ball and attempt a stunning chip. Not a goal, but an everlasting memory for all his admirers. “You flatter me with this remark,” Bob van Persie said, “but without being immodest I think it’s true: Robin is first of all an artist on the field, more than a player. That’s his main motivation. Making art, making history in his own special way…”
In the summer of 2012 Robin faced the biggest decision of his life: to leave Arsenal or not. “It was a dilemma,” he said. “I loved that club. The fantastic stadium. The public. The atmosphere. I am a real Gunner and will always be one. A part of me was hurt. But I am a winner. I always want to win and it was time to win some prizes with a club, some titles. I never would have gone for the money, but wanted the change to take my career a bit further. And it turned out to be the right decision. I won the title with Manchester United right away. And I must also say: Manchester United is a warm club. I feel happy there. It was the first time in my life that I became champion of a country! A dream. But the most beautiful thing about the title was the path towards the championship. It was like being on a train. It was fabulous.”
Robin is now the captain of the Netherlands and in October 2013 he became his nation’s leading scorer of all time, surpassing Patrick Kluivert’s record with a hat-trick against Hungary. “It was a fantastic moment,” Robin said, “especially because my two kids were there. Normally matches are too late for them, but that time the two of them were there. Maybe they don’t realise exactly what happened, but it’ll be wonderful to be able to talk about that memory in the future.”
Just before half-time, Robin scored his second to match Kluivert’s tally. He ran to the bench and hugged Kluivert, who is now one of Louis van Gaal’s assistants with the national team. “I can’t say what I felt in that moment,” Robin said “Kluivert’s 40th goal had been on that day exactly 10 years before. Patrick was keen to celebrate it with me. ‘It’s amazing you’ve come that far: now go on, champ!’ he said. I had to celebrate that moment with him. In the second half I scored number 41. Van Gaal called me over and took me off the pitch. The public stood up and gave me a hell of an ovation. That’s Van Gaal. I was injured in the days before, my little toe. Ridiculous but very painful. A couple of days before the game it was still hurting. The house-rule within the Dutch team is that you if you’re in pain, you have to go home. But the coach made an exception for me. And that paid off. Sometimes every piece of the puzzle falls together. This was such a night.”
The Netherlands had already secured their place in Brazil before that game, becoming the first nation to qualify. “In recent history, Holland have always been among the contenders for the World Cup,” he said. “We have a great team. A good mix of experience, skill and young talent. For a lot of us it will be the last chance, the last cry of a generation. Players like me. Like Wesley Sneijder, Raphaël van der Vaart and others. Personally I’m in my best period. Van Gaal gave me all the confidence I can ask for. He made me the main striker, my favourite position. At last! He made me captain. I owe him something. So I will be as sharp as a knife in Brazil. I will walk on fire for him if I have to. Like the rest of the team. We have a lot of options. Our coach has a lot of choices over there. I think we are going to do something special: like in 2010 but hopefully this time winning the final…”
Asked about the key to his success, Robin said, “I think my biggest strength is that I always keep doing exactly the same thing. There are forwards who go crazy in the euphoria, but after a goal I let myself fall back to midfield, getting some gas back, keeping myself cool and focused on my mission. And sometimes you are dry for weeks, but if you stop scoring goals for a while, don’t panic! Take it easy. Stay relaxed. That next goal is only waiting to fall your way. Don’t worry. In a bad period like that I also let myself drop to the midfield. By staying cool you give your mind the chance to cure your body. The human soul, the spirit, is much more important than the body. The modern player is judged by his results. I’m always on a train: three big games a week! So I have to function like a machine. It’s the only way to survive. That’s why you have to be stable in the emotional process. You always must try to find the balance. That’s what it’s all is about. Keeping your train going...”
Robin is now 30. The end is near. He’s already decided to finish his career with Excelsior, his first club. Robin is loyal. A couple of years ago, he donated a huge amount of money for youth training there. Excelsior named a stand after its most famous son. When he is in Rotterdam he always drops in. It’s like home. But before that, what are his plans?
“When his contract ends in Manchester he’ll be 33,” said Bob. “As long as he’s fit enough — and I’m sure he will be — he’ll stay in Manchester. Then he’ll go back to Excelsior. Money will never be an issue. Robin is hyperactive. He was like that as a kid and always will be like that. He needs football to burn his energy and he’ll be like that for the rest of his life. So he’s got to look forwards. I think he’ll probably always be loyal to Excelsior, Arsenal and Manchester United. Those clubs are like home. I think Robin will finish his career in Excelsior and then go back to London or Manchester as a coach. That will be his next goal in life: to be the best coach in the world. I hope we have to wait years for that moment. Let´s enjoy watching him play a little more.”
I asked Robin if his dream had come true. “Yes,” he answered, “of course. I’m where I always wanted to be.” Then he looked outside, with a distant smile. “I’m still a kid. Still with a dream. I’ll tell you something that happened the other day. I had lunch with Rio Ferdinand at the club when four kids, 10 years old or so, came in, players from the youth set-up. They were wearing nice training kit from United and they looked about curiously. In 10, 12 years maybe they’ll play for the first team. I said to Rio: ‘Look... those guys, still so young, that might be our most beautiful time. No worries. Cool being dressed in your training outfit. All day long. Football shoes on. All the time. Just playing along. On the street, indoors, on the pitch. Tired? Never! Muscular pain? Hardly ever. Maybe a day, once in a year... It’s incredible how you recover as a kid. You couldn’t imagine being injured, you just didn’t know what that was.”
Then it was as though held just woken up and he smiled that huge smile again. “Leo,” he said, “my most important dream is to stay as long as possible the kid that I still feel within me. That’s what I am. And that is what I always want to be: just a kid with only one wish, to play football.”