When Rafael van der Vaart, one of Europe's hottest properties at the time, moved from Ajax to Hamburg in the summer of 2005, it came as quite a surprise. Most people were expecting the mercurial midfielder with the cultured left-foot to have taken his pick of Europe's top clubs.
Off the pitch as well as on it, however, Van der Vaart has proved that he is a man of vision, and opting to play for the north German club seems to have been the right choice after all. At the tender age of 22, it gave him a fast track to learning what it means to bear the responsibility for the creativity of a whole team.
The Dutch international has been instrumental in getting Hamburg back to the forefront of German football, helping them to qualify for the UEFA Champions League and even beating former HSV legend Uwe Seeler's record by scoring in seven consecutive Bundesliga matches last autumn. Van der Vaart now appears to be ready to step up to the next level, both domestically and internationally.
Van der Vaart has already won 52 caps for the Oranje and will no doubt be one of the lynchpins of coach Marco van Basten's squad for UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. Recently, he gave FIFA.com some of his time, which he usually spends with his wife - an MTV presenter - and son, to answer some probing questions.
FIFA.com: Rafael, as well as being the playmaker, captain and very much the
superstar of a top German team, you and your wife Sylvie are the
glamour couple in one of Europe's most famous cities. Isn't that a little too much
for a 25-year-old to handle?
Van der Vaart: No, I have to say that I don't find it tough at all. Football has obviously given us lots of opportunities and we're both very grateful for that. But it doesn't mean that I've forgotten where I'm from, and I think that that is something that you should never forget. It's the best way of keeping your feet on the ground.
When you moved from Ajax to Hamburg in the 2005/06 season,
there was a burden of expectation, and you rose to the challenge
even though you were still very young. What did you learn from the
experience and how have things changed for you?
Right from the moment when the transfer went through, I was convinced that it was the right move at the right time. I still had to adapt though. I was living in a different city and playing in a different league. That made me mature more quickly and I learnt how to take on my responsibilities. I think that it has been a positive experience and will help me further down the line.
How important is winning titles to you? And how does this
affect your daily life?
I'm a professional footballer, my heart and soul is in it, I love to play and I play to win. So I'm always looking to win titles. That's why you train every day and constantly look to improve.
What are your short and mid-term aims with Hamburg?
Before the start of the season, we said that we just wanted to do better than last year. We know that it's going to be tough between now and the end of the season. Looking at the mid-term, HSV should be aiming to compete for the league title and make some waves on the international stage. I think that everything's in place for us to do that. We have a great team, a wonderful stadium and some very enthusiastic fans. You can tell that the city is right behind the club, and I think that's great.
You once said that Zinedine Zidane is your role-model. The
former French playmaker won both the FIFA World Cup™ and the
European Championship as well as the Champions League. Are those
the trophies that you need to win, to go from being a good player
to one of the greats?
As I said, I'm always looking to win trophies. Whether that would make me a great footballer is not for me to say. That's up to other people to decide.
UEFA EURO 2008 is being held in Austria and Switzerland
this summer. You've said that the Netherlands will be one of
the underdogs at the tournament, which sounds like a bluff. How do
you really think the
Oranje will fare?
It wasn't necessarily a bluff. Just look at our group. We've got two of the favourites - Italy and France - in with us and Romania shouldn't be underestimated. Of course we know that we have a good team, but I'm not going to talk up our title chances. First off, we've got to get through a really tough group.
When you heard about the draw, what was the first thing
that struck you - shock or anticipation?
Well basically there are no easy opponents at a European Championship. And in any case we can't change the draw and just have to take it as it comes.
What do you think of the current form of your three group
There's not a lot to say about Italy and France. Both teams have so many good players that they can beat anyone on their day. Romania showed how strong they are in the recent EURO qualifying. At the EURO, it will all come down to who plays better on the day.
What would a EURO title mean to you on a personal level?
It would be a dream come true, and a big dream at that. The Euro is as difficult to win as a World Cup.
And what would it mean to the Netherlands, exactly 20 years after their last and to date only
success in a major tournament? In recent years, the
Oranje have flattered to deceive on the big
I quite honestly think they would declare a national holiday in the Netherlands. It would be a dream come true for the whole country as well.
Do you think the Netherlands can win the FIFA World Cup
South Africa 2010?
That's a tough question. First off we've got the Euro to think about and then we need to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa. I think the best way to do it is to take one game at a time.