From street football to centre stage, it”s the making of Super van Persie
Hanging from an Anglepoise lamp inside the waterfront studio of Bob van Persie is a pair of pale pink ballet shoes with six studs each sole.
‘There is art in football, don’t you think’ says Bob. ‘Football can be like a ballet.’
It might seem that way when every game you see features Robin van Persie and beauty such as the volley against Everton earlier this month. Has Bob seen that goal
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Proud father: Bob van Persie outside the house in which Robin lived and the street where he played football
‘What do you think Like the one at Charlton,’ he replies, evoking memories of an equally stunning volley, this one from five years ago.
Bob is chronicling his son’s career, clipping and mounting articles and binding them in an album.
Volume 37 is open on the sculptor’s work bench and may prove the best yet as Robin pursues Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.
The Arsenal captain has 34, equalling a club record, with two games left. It has been a prolific 2011 and his father is a proud and happy man. He always suspected Robin was going to be special. After all, he had been warned.
The Van Persies had two girls when Bob met a woman in an art gallery. She approached him, explained she was a fortune teller and said his next child would be a boy.
When Robin was two weeks old, his father tracked down the woman to find out more. She said school would not interest him but, when it came to sport, he would be ‘a king’, ‘a Ferrari’.
He was, she explained, ‘an extraordinary boy’ who would play football for the Netherlands and earn money by the ‘bucketful’.
Art: Van Persie”s trademark is to score goals of breathtaking technique, as here against Charlton and Everton
Destiny No one who saw the young Van Persie with a football ever doubted his talent. Van Persie never doubted it either. Sometimes, this was the problem.
At SBV Excelsior, Robin’s every move is followed closely. This was his first club and, although he never played beyond the Under 12s, Van Persie is an absent hero. A stand is named in his honour at the 3,500-capacity Stadion Woudestein and his image dominates the fans’ bar. Last year, the he was back to unveil the photographic tribute and write a personal message.
‘As a little boy I had a dream of being what I am now and now I try to play football as if I am still a boy. The pure passion of the game is more to me than winning or losing.
‘I try to give to football what it gives me, love. Thanks for the beautiful years and for the base to start my career. Robin van Persie.’
Can he eclipse Shearer
Robin van Persie needs a hat-trick against QPR on Saturday to overtake Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year. The Dutchman has matched Thierry Henry’s Gunners record of 34 in a single year – in four fewer games.
At Excelsior, they adore the sentiment. They also appreciate the money. Van Persie offers financial support to the club’s academy and — through adidas, which supplies his boots — donates kit for the teams from Under 5s to Under 9s. Shirts are emblazoned with his face, an inspiration to those under the gaze of Marco van Lochem, Excelsior’s head of youth.
The academy has been modernised since Bob van Persie turned up with his five-year-old son and suggested coach Aad Putters might want to bend the rules stating children had to be six or older.
‘That’s what they all say,’ came the reply, but Robin and his father stuck around. ‘Every time the ball went out, he shot it back in a way I had never seen before,’ said Putters, in a rare interview for Excelsior TV, who made a Van Persie special earlier this month.
‘From the first time I saw him, I knew this would be a Superman. He would run to training from his house, juggling the ball all the way.
‘Even when it was raining and training was cancelled, Robin would call and ask if he could come and train with me. Of course, that wasn’t a problem.’
Gone but not forgotten: SBV Excelsior have a stand dedicated to their former player, while the youth team have a kit emblazoned with his picture
Putters worked hard on Van Persie’s right foot and heading, nurturing the skills acquired playing in the streets of Kralingen, the multi-cultural neighbourhood in east Rotterdam where he grew up and his father still lives.
For hours he would kick the ball against the wall of the family home or play in a games court known as ‘The Cage’. This would irritate the coaches at Feyenoord who wanted him to rest and balance his lifestyle.
Said Boutahar and Mounir El Hamdaoui were regulars in ‘The Cage’. Like Van Persie, they would join Excelsior and play professionally. El Hamdaoui joined Tottenham but never played and is now at Ajax.
Boutahar, now playing in Qatar, devised a game with Van Persie where they would each stand on a line, three yards in front of goal and try to chip shots over each other.
Excelsior’s philosophy is to recreate street football.
‘We let them play without too much interference,’ said Van Lochem. ‘It’s important they love the game. At a lot of professional clubs it is almost like a factory: “He’s not good enough so send him away and bring in the next one”.’
Sonja Lagendijk’s office is decorated with sports shirts and posters, with a strong Feyenoord theme.
Her support for Rotterdam’s top club dates back to the years when they ruled Europe (the first Dutch team to win the European Cup, in 1970) but she also works at Thorbecke VO, a school for athletic prodigies.
Olympic swimming champion Inge de Bruijn studied here and, since 1995, all the young players from Feyenoord’s Academy, Varkenoord, have attended this school.
Joey Sleegers, the latest 17-year-old tipped as the next Johan Cruyff, is chauffeur-driven nearly 100 miles to school each day from his home in rural Holland.
Among the shirts on the walls are those of Nathan Ake and Karim Rekik, lured to England this year at 16 by Chelsea and Manchester City; transfers branded ‘stupid’ by Feyenoord’s general manager Eric Gudde.
The Dutch club have found a way to maximise coaching time and educate young players but it only seems to encourage predatory behaviour by the money-to-burn giants of England, Italy and Spain.
Stardom beckons for the Varkenoord contingent. If they reach the first team they will earn more money in a few win bonuses than their teachers are paid in a year.
‘If you walk around with your head in the air, we put you down,’ said Sonja, but Van Persie was not easy to keep down, once returning from an U14 game to boast to the school canteen it was Van Persie 2 PSV Eindhoven 0.
At 28, he still suffers in Holland with a reputation for arrogance acquired as he broke through at Feyenoord and won the UEFA Cup in his first season.
‘Everyone is saying you will be one of the greatest players of all time and when you put a boy on a pedestal it becomes tricky,’ says teacher Omar Verhoeven.
Less said about lessons: Robin is shown aged 16 in the second row from the back, fourth in from the right
His preferred school: Sonja Lagendijk helped RVP as the co-ordiantor of future sporting talent at the school in Rotterdam
‘I would say: “Robin, do your homework, it is important you have your diploma” but everyone was saying: “Robin, you’re going to be like Johan Cruyff”. I can’t imagine what he was thinking. It was like: “Talk to the hand”.
‘Some teachers had problems with that kind of attitude. In football, you can break a leg and it’s over. But, at the moment, he is one of the greatest. When you see that goal against Everton, it is “A la Cruyff”.
‘When you talk about the great Dutch players it is Cruyff and it is Bergkamp but in the future it will be Van Persie. We realised this 15 years ago.’
In Holland, when someone improves with age, they say he has ‘dried up well’ and Robin’s teachers have him in this category.
‘He has two feet on the ground but 15 years ago, he was flying,’ says teacher Rik van der Donk. ‘He was arrogant but he was the best player in the team and he was more intelligent than he ever showed us.’
‘All boys are rascals,’ adds Sonja. ‘He has a big salary but he likes the spirit of the game, he doesn’t play for money. I am so glad for him. He has earned it.’
Excelsior and Feyenoord have an understanding. They are Eredivisie and Rotterdam rivals but players move freely between them and everyone knows who’s the boss.
Royston Drenthe was 16 when sent from Varkenoord to Excelsior for experience. He improved under Van Lochem’s guidance, returned to Feyenoord and was soon sold to Real Madrid for 23million.
Dutch football had been excited about Van Persie for some time before Feyenoord pulled rank.
‘I saw all the players of that age at Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord and he was better than anyone,’ says Rene Hessel, who coached Van Persie at Excelsior from the age of nine until he left at 12.
Moving on up: A team picture of the Feyenoord youth team with Robin Van Persie, front row three in from the left
‘We were first in the league. We played Feyenoord three times and won them all. That didn’t happen often at Excelsior. It was the best team I remember. Robin scored a lot and made a lot.’
Van Persie was single-minded. As a teenager at Varkenoord, he spoke of breaking into the first team before moving to Arsenal or Barcelona.
‘Even at 17 he had a set belief that he was going to be a big player,’ recalls Danny Buijs, who came through the Feyenoord ranks with him. ‘He knew where he wanted to go and was confident he would reach the top.’
Buijs, now at Kilmarnock, and Celtic’s Glenn Loovens played with Van Persie in an U19 team which eclipsed an Ajax team featuring Rafael van der Vaart, John Heitinga and Martin Stekelenburg.
‘Feyenoord had not been youth champions for 20 years,’ says Buijs. ‘It was always Ajax. But we won the league and the cup. We all dreamed of being professional footballers and almost all of us did but you could see Robin was special.
‘He scored amazing goals. He had something more than the others.’
When Loovens and Buijs were loaned to Excelsior, Van Persie stepped into Bert van Marwijk’s first team to forge an attacking quartet with Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jon Dahl Tomasson and Bonaventure Kalou (Salomon’s brother). He won the UEFA Cup but an on-field dispute with team-mate Van Hooijdonk remains one of the most vivid memories from his days in that team.
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‘Van Hooijdonk was behind the ball ready to take a free-kick when Robin went over and said he thought he should take it,’ says Buijs. ‘They had a little fight on the pitch.
‘You could see Robin’s attitude. He believed in himself. When you’re young, sometimes you think you can beat the world and you don’t listen to people with experience. After a few years, you know it would’ve been better to listen.’
Van Marwijk struggled with the impetuous Van Persie and exiled him to the reserves before selling him to Arsenal for 2.75million in 2004. Even by Arsene Wenger’s standards, it was a bargain.
‘Feyenoord didn’t treat him well,’ says Hessel. ‘They labelled him a very difficult boy but Robin was not a difficult boy. Van Marwijk was keeping him out of the team and that’s when Arsenal came in. Feyenoord might regret their attitude.’
Bob van Persie’s art reflects the two decades he has spent watching his son play football. He sculpts tiny individual figures from old newspapers and magazines and creates a crowd at a match.
Hanging on a wall in his studio is a new work, which includes tiny flashlights to recreate the cameras which flicker in the crowd when a player nears the touchline. ‘I love the Emirates,’ he says. ‘I prefer it to Highbury.’
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Using pages torn from the Arsenal Magazine, Bob created a work which hangs inside the Emirates Stadium. He made another in the shape of a number 10 which Robin presented to Dennis Bergkamp when he retired. The ballet shoes were created as a gift, too. ‘I made them for a friend,’ says Bob. ‘He was expecting a baby; he wanted a boy and out came a girl.’
Robin’s mother Jose Ras and Bob have been divorced for more than 15 years. She is also an artist and lives in Zeeland near the Belgian border, where she designs jewellery.
Robin showed no interest in art as a child but shared his father’s appreciation of Diego Maradona. Little wonder Bob glows with pride at what his son has become.
‘Look at the pictures of that goal Robin scored against Everton,’ says Rene Hessel. ‘Look at the shape of his body and look at his hands. He is an artist too and he belongs in an elite group with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.’
At Arsenal, Van Persie is an icon of the Premier League era, someone who can stand alongside the goal heroes like Henry and Ian Wright after 2011, the Year of the Robin.