"The World Cup in South Africa, when we got to the Final, was just crazy. I’ll never forget it."
Dutch midfield ace Rafael van der Vaart can still feel the euphoria when he reminisces on the highlight of his career. He ultimately ended up on the losing side in Johannesburg, but one of his country’s most gifted players has had a stellar career nonetheless. In almost two decades as a professional, the 33-year-old has seen and experienced it all. He enjoyed successful spells with Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and his boyhood club Ajax, as well as two stints at German outfit Hamburg (2005-08) and (2012-15), a club that is now very close to his heart. “Hamburg has become a huge part of my life,” he said.
His exceptional technical ability allied with his leadership and playmaking skills made him a staple of the Dutch national team for over ten years, although he has not played for the Oranje since 2013. After a turbulent few months on and off the pitch, VdV appears to have found calm waters at FC Midtjylland in Denmark, where he is slowly getting back to his best. After featuring at three UEFA European Championships and two FIFA World Cups™, and making over 100 appearances for his country, will Van der Vaart play international football again? The man himself reveals all in this exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You scored for the first time in over 18 months a couple of weeks ago. That must have been a wonderful moment for you?
Rafael van der Vaart: Absolutely. It’s always fantastic to score. It’s great to go to a new club and get a goal. It’s a wonderful feeling and a good start.
How did your move to Denmark come about?
One of the reasons was definitely my girlfriend, who plays handball nearby – but that wasn’t the main reason. I realised it was a win-win situation. The fact that the club plays at the top level was also important to me.
Midtjylland ended last season in third place, and currently occupy the same spot. Is there more to come?
We’ll have to wait and see. I’ve only been here for a few weeks, so I can’t yet give a firm assessment. I’ve got a good feeling though. We’re in a good place and have plenty of games yet to play, so anything is possible.
What are your first impressions of Denmark?
Life is great here. Plus I get to be close to my girlfriend and my son Damian, who lives in Hamburg. I feel at home here and that means I can get back to delivering good performances.
The current team needs more time. It’s a shame they didn’t manage to qualify for EURO 2016. It’s a tough period, but now they should be able to build around their young players.
The past few years have been extremely difficult for you, particularly in your private life. How much has this affected you on the pitch, or have you been able to block it out?
I never really talk about my private life, but I’ve been through a difficult period as a footballer. At [Real] Betis I spent almost all my time on the bench or was left out of the squad altogether, and that wasn’t easy. I want to get back to enjoying my football here.
Do you now consider yourself something of a veteran?
I want to have fun. I might not be 21 any more, but I’ve already shown what I can do. I can still take on the very best and I’ll demonstrate that to everyone.
Do you think you’ll return to a top European club at some point?
You never know what might happen in football, but I’ve signed a two-year contract and I’m glad to be here. I’ll give it my all and hopefully enjoy success along the way. There’s no need to think about what the future holds right now.
The Dutch national team is currently enduring a torrid time. What are the reasons for this?
It’s tough to assess things from a distance when you’re not part of it. Although it’s an easy thing to say, it’s simply a different time compared to when I was playing. Back then I was playing for [Real] Madrid, [Wesley] Sneijder was at Inter Milan and others played for Bayern [Munich] or Barcelona. Now most of the squad play in the domestic league instead of for Europe’s biggest clubs. That’s the biggest difference between then and now.
The current team needs more time. It’s a shame they didn’t manage to qualify for EURO 2016. It’s a tough period, but now they should be able to build around their young players. Although the potential is there, that’s not enough in itself. You need experience too.
Have you officially retired from international football?
No. I have never announced my retirement or said that I would never play for the national team again. I haven’t been called up for three years, but you never know what might happen. It’s not my primary aim. First and foremost I want to play as much as possible for my club and stay fit, and we’ll see what’s possible after that. I’d always say yes if the Netherlands came calling, but at the moment there’s no contact between us.
I’ve had the opportunity to play and live in many beautiful cities; that was and remains an absolute dream.
Do you follow the latest developments at HSV?
I cheer them on, of course. Hamburg are a big part of my life and I still follow their progress. It’s always exciting because something’s always going on at HSV, and you can see that again this season.
How long do you want to carry on playing?
I want to play until I can’t run any more (laughs). And then I’ll see what happens after that.
What was your best experience with the national team?
Reaching the World Cup Final in South Africa was incredible. Those memories will stay with me forever.
Do you have any regrets in your career?
Not really. You have to learn from your mistakes and allow each one to make you stronger. I haven’t got everything right, but I’m satisfied nonetheless.
You have played in Germany, England, Spain and Denmark – which did you like best?
I’ve had a lot of fun everywhere. I’ve had the opportunity to play and live in many beautiful cities; that was and remains an absolute dream.