The story of the Dutch footballer who plays for Manchester United
In the summer of 2012 Robin Van Persie, or RVP as he is affectionately known by his fans, made the controversial move from Arsenal to Manchester United. As one of the Premier League's most lethal strikers, he became the Gunner's eighth all-time top scorer with 132 goals, taking on the captain's armband in the process. But on August 15, 2012, Arsenal shockingly announced they would be selling RVP to Manchester United. Needing to win the hearts of his new fans over, it was important the Dutch striker get off to a flying start—which he duly did, scoring with his very first shot for the club against Fulham and then bagging a hattrick against Southampton a week later. Despite his exceptional first season with United, RVP still commands respect among Gunners fans, and indeed around the globe, especially in his home country of the Netherlands, as his footballing prowess overcomes fierce club loyalties. Part of the Dutch side who were World Cup runners-up in 2010, and with more than 70 appearances for his country, Robin Van Persie is one of the modern footballing greats. This is his incredible story.
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About the Author
Andy Williams is a sports and music journalist.
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The Biography of Robin Van Persie
By Andy Lloyd-Williams
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Andy Williams
All rights reserved.
Robin van Persie was born in the Kralingen district of eastern Rotterdam on 6 August 1983. His father Bob raised Robin and sisters Lilly and Kiki as a single parent after splitting from their mother when Robin was five years old. Both Bob and Robin's mother José Ras were artists – a strong link to his creativity on the football field. Pushy parents have a reputation of ruining children's football matches so perhaps coming from a less football-intense home allowed Robin to concentrate on developing his skills without the extra pressure some football-mad parents can put on their offspring.
He told Arsenal TV that it was a very different household to those of his friends as he was granted a bit more freedom than the average kid. Arranging sleepovers for pals was a lot easier for van Persie to do because his parents were so relaxed. He said: 'We were free! The weekend is for yourself – enjoy yourself!'
His parents attempted to persuade van Persie to follow in their steps as an artist, but he always found football much more of a draw than painting and sculpting. Bob was a famous artist in the Dutch cultural scene but despite some early forays into the world of art, the lure of a football always proved too strong for van Persie to resist. After his parents divorced, Robin lived with Bob in an artistic den and was continually encouraged to be creative. He told the Independent: 'When I was younger my parents encouraged me to be creative, to draw and play games to expand my mind. They wanted me to be an individual. But it turned out I'm rubbish with my hands.'
In fact it was van Persie's grandfather, who had himself played football professionally, who encouraged him in those early years. The pair used to play for hours on an area of grass behind his grandparents' home.
The young lad took to the city streets where he would play football for up to eight hours a day with other youngsters. He did a lot of growing up in the concrete jungle as it showed what the real world was like: for better and for worse. In his early teens young Robin didn't have a lot of money but playing was free so long as somebody had brought a ball.
He would go on to marry a Dutch-Moroccan girl and it was his time on the streets that introduced van Persie to Moroccan and Surinamese communities. An upbringing encompassing different communities would make him a well-balanced, worldly adult. He may not have become the artist his parents wanted but the fact he was raised in an artistic environment is clear for all to see. Van Persie has always had a very distinctive style on the pitch, clearly thinking outside of the box and, in his early days at least, possessing something of a temper.
SBV Excelsior saw great potential in van Persie and the local club played a great part in his early development. The Rotterdam outfit acted as a 'satellite club' for its more illustrious neighbours Feyenoord, providing stars of the future for the big boys up the road. They identified and nurtured a host of future Premier League stars including Winston Bogarde, George Boateng and Salomon Kalou.
Roughly translated from Latin, 'Excelsior' means 'onward and upward' and it was certainly the case for van Persie after he learned his trade there. Excelsior's ground holds a tiny 3,531 people and the club is known for providing a relaxed environment in which players can properly focus on development and hone their skills. Joining the youth set-up at his hometown club at the age of four, van Persie grew up playing for the club and did not leave until he was 16.
Truth be told he had probably already outgrown Excelsior and it would have been time to move on anyway, but the reason van Persie left for Feyenoord was a series of disagreements with coaching staff.
His fiery temper regularly attracted trouble at school: in his early teenage years Robin was in hot water pretty much every day. He was sent out of the classroom so regularly that a friendship was struck up with the school janitor, who coincidentally was Dutch-Moroccan. School caretaker Sietje Moush became a valuable friend who could be trusted for advice.
Van Persie told the Independent: 'If you're 15, 16, 17, it's a difficult age. You start wanting to go out, to clubs or whatever, but my friend made sure I never did. He'd say, "Those places are rubbish", and I believed it. When I was sent out it was never because I yelled at the teacher or used bad words. I was more the wise guy, taking the piss. I always had something to say back to the teacher, which I'm sure was frustrating for them, but I always had respect.' Such was the respect between the pair that Moush would go on to act as van Persie's unofficial agent.
That wise guy-based trouble spilled over onto the football field. Coaches were not willing to put up with what was at times a petulant attitude and van Persie moved on to satellite club Feyenoord, where he would make his debut at just 17.
Those old wounds have since been forgotten; everybody says things they don't really mean when they're young. The club have been keen to maintain contact with van Persie in subsequent years, so in October 2010 he was appointed as an ambassador of the club and one of the Stadion Woudestein stands was named after him.
He may have only been 27 at the time but van Persie told Dutch reporters he was already hatching plans to return to the club at the end of his career. It looked as though van Persie meant what he said when he attended a celebratory evening at Stadion Woudestein. Most footballers simply 'turn up' at events like this, look slightly awkward, smirk, perform whatever duties are demanded of them and make a sharp exit. Robin van Persie is not most footballers. Not only did he avoid making that sharp exit, he also led a conga line in the supporters' bar and belted out an endearingly tuneless version of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' in a karaoke session. Not many big-name footballers would be willing to get this hands-on with supporters but van Persie didn't seem to have a problem with it. Quite the opposite in fact: it looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
Dutch radio reporters managed to grab van Persie in a brief quiet moment and he said: 'It may only be a small ground but I do not know when, whether I'm 33 or 38 I do not know, but I would like to return as a player at Excelsior. I started here so I feel it would complete the circle for me. Many people forget that for me it all started with Excelsior. I had already been playing football for some time before I could be seen on TV playing for Feyenoord. From the age of five onwards I was to be found almost daily at Excelsior. That time was great.'
As with every moment in van Persie's career, disaster was only just around the corner. But surely nothing could go wrong at a stand renaming ceremony? The injury curse that plagued various stages of his career struck again but this time it was an unfortunate child who was in the firing line. As he led a line of kids along the side of the pitch, a camera crew was in hot pursuit.
Curiosity got the better of one of the youngsters and he looked back towards the camera and not the direction he was walking in. As he turned to look the way he was walking, the unfortunate child walked straight into a pole and fell to the ground in tears. Van Persie looked concerned and did his best to console the bawling child after helping him to his feet.
After falling out with coaches at Excelsior he made a fresh start at Feyenoord. The club was still in his home of Rotterdam but was one of the 'big three' of Dutch football – Feyenoord, PSV and Ajax battled for supremacy in the Eredivisie.
A spate of injuries in the Feyenoord squad afforded van Persie a chance sooner than he might have hoped and he made his debut in the 2001/2002 season at just 17 years of age. It was 'sink or swim' as he was thrown in at the deep end but some young players can enter the highest level playing with no fear and that can provide a breath of fresh air for all concerned. This was the case for van Persie as he shot to prominence in a season that culminated in winning the KNVB Best Young Talent award.
That early rise to prominence might, in a roundabout kind of way, have been to his detriment, a victim of his own success. Coach Bert van Marwijk thought he needed to be brought back down to earth and, as at Excelsior, van Persie fell out with the boss. Feyenoord is the wrong club to play for if you are a tad arrogant. The 'Sleeping Giants', or 'Slapende Reus' in Dutch, think arrogance belongs at their Amsterdam rivals Ajax and look to snuff out any trace of it from their players.
In the youth set-up he played alongside Civard Sprockel, who would go on to join Vitesse, and Said Boutaha, who has played for a string of Eredivisie clubs. It soon became clear that van Persie was going to be a decent proposition, and by the time he reached 18 the De Kuip club awarded him a three and a half year contract. The long-term deal was part of Feyenoord's policy of nurturing local talent and also meant they would be in a strong bargaining position if he were to attract the attentions of a club with money to spend. Arsenal would eventually come calling but van Persie was still a few years away from his dream move to north London.
As a headstrong young man, van Persie was unable to handle a relentless stream of criticism coming from his coaches. Things were clearly starting to get to him and soon the young hopeful was not only challenging van Marwijk but also back-chatting to his Netherlands Under-21 manager Foppe de Haan and Dutch footballing icon Pierre van Hooijdonk, who starred as the side won the UEFA Cup in 2002.
It would be hard to spot in the moment, but a few years on van Persie said he understood why some people had come to think that he was an over-confident, arrogant player. He told the Daily Express: 'I can understand it if people say I am arrogant. Recently I saw myself on TV and I thought, "Well, well, well Robin, you have a nasty swagger." A little less would be better. But that attitude says nothing about my personality, but more about my image. I don't blame anybody who thinks I am arrogant because I think it also myself.'
That image might have been 'part of the package' when he played in Arsenal's galaxy of stars but it was different at Feyenoord. Van Marwijk was a hard coach who liked his players to be modest and quiet working machines that he could easily control, not expressive free-thinkers who were always off doing their own thing.
Pierre van Hooijdonk was the star of the show but young upstart van Persie was extremely confident in his own ability and at times ignored the great. In a game against RKC Waalwijk, van Hooijdonk set himself to take a free-kick but van Persie nipped in and took it first, his effort flying over the crossbar.
Van Persie told the Independent: 'The shot did not go in but I was feeling good at the time. I still think he could have been a bit more polite, he could have said "OK take it." Now I can say, "Robin, maybe you should have let that free-kick go." It was a fantastic position for me. The position of the ball was for a left-footed player but he was the free-kick taker and he made a big problem out of it. That's OK. I think it would have been the smart thing to let him take it. For me it was no big problem, those kinds of things happen. I learned from that moment.'
It was incidents like that which would see van Marwijk relegate him to the bench and reserves after initially impressing. It is fair to say the coach did not quite understand or agree with the way van Persie went about his business. After he had joined Arsenal and found himself better understood by Arsène Wenger, van Persie complained that his relationship with van Marwijk had never been quite right and he had been misunderstood.
Indeed it would have been easy to mistake this youthful hunger for arrogance when in fact it was a childhood spent playing street football that had made him this way. When the kids of Kralingen played their intense 'winner stays on' games, if they did not go out of their way to showcase skills, they would very quickly find themselves watching from the sidelines.
Van Persie burst onto the scene at Feyenoord as a raw but exciting centre forward who had an eye for the spectacular, and netted eight goals in his first season. Those disciplinary problems were evident early in his career as he also received a red card early doors. He netted his first goal after coming off the bench in a 4-2 victory over FC Twente and, with the club going through a terrible injury crisis, he was given the chance to start against arch-rivals Ajax. Van Persie really made people sit up and notice as he netted again in the 1-1 draw. That brilliant start to his Feyenoord career continued when he scored in a 4-1 win over AZ Alkmaar.
It was at Rangers that van Persie made his European debut for the Dutch outfit, as the side went on to win the competition. As the sides met in the second leg in the Netherlands, van Persie cut in from the flank and crashed a drive against the post. For an unknown he had played a massive part in getting the side to the UEFA Cup final as he set up Pierre van Hooijdonk to score in the semi-final second leg.
Van Persie started that final and showed flashes of brilliance as his team beat Borussia Dortmund 3-2 to lift the trophy on their own patch. It was a fantastic start to his career to lift the UEFA Cup in front of his own supporters and the young star was understandably over the moon.
It is the understatement of the century to say that van Persie and van Marwijk did not see eye to eye. On the verge of the club's UEFA Super Cup clash against Real Madrid, the coach sent van Persie home from the club's training camp in Turkey, saying he did not like van Persie's body language upon being asked to warm up for a UEFA Champions League qualifying game.
After he joined Arsenal, van Persie looked back at that incident with regret. He told the Independent: 'Feyenoord took Real Madrid away from me very, very rudely. Imagine you're 19, you're only a few months as a professional and they do that to you. Real were the best in the world then, the biggest test for a footballer, and it was my dream to play against Zinedine Zidane. He's such an amazing footballer, his first touch, his vision. I have big respect for him, more than for David Beckham.'
Looking back on his frustrating time at De Kuip, van Persie said: 'That's just not the way – belittling people is just not enjoyable. That is not the way to help a talented youngster on his way.'
A more mature van Persie is able to reflect on his Feyenoord years and learn from them rather than just vent his frustrations. He said that the club's coaches had set bad examples to their up and coming young players. He was not the only one to have coaches constantly niggling away at him, but while players with a more formal football upbringing were used to being treated like this, van Persie simply could not accept being spoken to in such a manner. Rather than put up and shut up as might have been wiser for him to do, van Persie answered back to van Marwijk in the same way he had done to his teachers at school.
When he was at Arsenal, van Persie was able to admit that he had created his own problems at Feyenoord: 'I don't want to make excuses for myself because I did make some real mistakes. But that was mainly because of the emotions, because I did not have the self-control and could not control the situation.'
That restraint would come in time and eventually van Persie stopped lashing out so much in high-pressure situations.
Van Persie said it was poor communication that led him to fall out with van Marwijk. Perhaps he had been naive to think he could stroll up to the manager and make suggestions about how to conduct training sessions: 'There were a few misunderstandings with the coach, a few miscommunications. Sometimes I went to him to have a talk but I think he thought I was trying to tell him what to do. I went with good intentions – to say what I thought about the team and my position in it.'
Arsène Wenger would later convert him from a winger to a striker but van Marwijk was not so keen to mix things up. After van Persie had suggested he might do well in a more central role, van Marwijk told reporters he had been demanding a place in the side: 'He said in the papers afterwards that I was demanding to be in the team as a second striker. It wasn't like that. I just suggested that he try me in another position some time to see how it worked out. I was unhappy on the left wing, so why stay quiet?'
Badmouthing his player to the press would not help anybody. When Wenger had problems with a player he would try to spur them on with a quiet word in the ear rather than having a go at them in public. Wenger would later show van Marwijk how things were done when he listened to his player's suggestions instead of moaning to reporters.
This harsh treatment seemed to be the way things worked in Rotterdam. Van Persie told the Independent that after constant criticism from van Marwijk, the press had played its part in his descent into notoriety at De Kuip. Once his manager had turned on him and banished the young star to the reserves, the media tried every trick in the book to blacken his name, including hounding his father. After van Persie returned to the first team and hit a fine vein of form, the fickle reporters were soon waxing lyrical about the striker and, looking back on that period, he said it toughened him up and taught him to ignore what was written.
Excerpted from The Biography of Robin Van Persie by Andy Lloyd-Williams. Copyright © 2013 Andy Williams. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: EARLY DAYS,
CHAPTER 2: THE DREAM MOVE,
CHAPTER 3: CRISIS TIME,
CHAPTER 4: BOUNCING BACK,
CHAPTER 5: GERMANY AWAITS,
CHAPTER 6: NEW RESPONSIBILITIES,
CHAPTER 7: SO CLOSE,
CHAPTER 8: BREAKTHROUGH MOVE,
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