In the hit American television series Prison Break, the hero Michael Scofield used a blueprint of the jail hidden in his tattoos as part of an elaborate escape plan. It is easy to imagine the premise appealing to Netherlands right-back Gregory van der Wiel, though the copious ink designs covering his own arms serve an altogether different purpose: to never let him lose sight of how far he has come.
“Sometimes I look at a few of them to remind me of their message,” he told FIFA.com, in the sunlit surroundings of Ajax’s training complex. Indeed, nine years ago, Van der Wiel was taken aside by the club's academy staff and asked to continue his development elsewhere in a bid to improve his discipline. A loan move to nearby Haarlem was agreed and the 23-year-old now looks back upon his spell there as a crucial one.
“That’s where I became who I am,” he said. The youngster quickly matured at Haarlem and his playing skills evolved too, to the extent that at 17 he was invited back into the Ajax fold. Two years later he was handed his Eredivisie debut and his dream was back on track.
People often see me as a bad boy because of my style. Hip hop is my culture so I often wear headphones. I dress in streetwear and that means some people get me wrong.
From there, his upward trajectory has not faltered. Winner of the Johan Cruyff Prize as the best young talent in the Dutch elite last year, Van der Wiel earned himself a trip to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and helped the Oranje finish runners-up, making five appearances and starting the Final. Now attracting admiring glances from a number of leading clubs in England, he can look with pride upon the message contained in one of his more recent tattoos: 'Don’t judge a person by their appearance.'
Van der Wiel, billed by international team-mate John Heitinga as the long-term successor to Michael Reiziger, explained: "People often see me as a bad boy because of my style. Hip hop is my culture so I often wear headphones. I dress in streetwear and that means some people get me wrong. It’s a shame.”
Van der Wiel is nonetheless willing to admit his past mistakes. “I should never have told the press that my boyhood idol was [former Feyenoord idol] Robin van Persie,” he admitted with a smile. “The [Ajax] supporters took a long time to forgive me for that.”
He has also moved on from the controversy surrounding his presence at a concert by the rapper Lil’ Wayne in 2009, after he had withdrawn from the Netherlands squad for a friendly in Australia due to medical reasons. As for being sent away from the Ajax academy in his youth, he now feels it was the correct decision.
“With hindsight, they were right,” he said. “I was acting tough, had a big mouth and I deserved it. At Haarlem, I focused on my game and I calmed down. I progressed and I came back here even though I had offers from other teams. This is my club, this is my town, and I wanted to show that I’d changed.”
He did precisely that and continues to reap the benefits. “I’ve grown up, I’ve matured," added the Amsterdam native. "I’ve got used to the lifestyle of a footballer. I take each day as it comes.”
Van der Wiel relishes his privileged standing as a professional, but his laid-back approach to life has its limits and he takes little for granted, least of all the wealth that comes with the job. “We didn’t have much when I was young, but my parents gave me a lot,” he said, his Dutch mother and father from Curacao still living just two minutes away from him.
“They took me by bike if they had to when I needed to go and play. I was four years old and that taught me the value of money. I give them some every month and I appreciate mine even more than I otherwise would have.”
Further riches potentially lay in store abroad and Van der Wiel admits he is intrigued by the prospect of testing himself on a different stage: “I’ve never left Amsterdam and I don’t know what life is like elsewhere. It would be a huge challenge, but it ought to work out well - I’m sure of that.”
If we’d have gone to penalties, we'd have won it. I still haven’t got over that lost Final and I won’t unless we win the World Cup.
Despite the interest emanating from the Premier League, however, he is fully focused on helping Ajax in the race for the Eredivisie title. “I want to win trophies, keep progressing and play at the very highest level,” he said, having learnt from last year’s adventure in South Africa to “keep believing in my qualities and stay confident”.
First capped in 2009, Van der Wiel looks upon the Netherlands squad as another “family”, and together with his Oranje brethren he is desperate to heal the wounds opened in the loss to Spain in Johannesburg’s Soccer City on 11 July 2010.
“To lose like that, four minutes from the end, was so harsh," he lamented. "If we’d have gone to penalties, we'd have won it. I still haven’t got over that lost Final and I won’t unless we win the World Cup.”
That is one message he will surely never need a tattoo to reinforce.