Transfer deadline day, August 2012. Amid Sky Sports’ circus of nonsense, there was one very real, very heartbreaking bit of footage: Rafael van der Vaart leaving the Tottenham training ground for the last time.
Time was up, the journey was over.
The memories of van der Vaart, three years after his departure, are still very precious. He’s not synonymous with anything particularly significant and his time at White Hart Lane didn’t alter the club’s trajectory in any way, but the legacy he left behind is still remarkably rich.
In 2015, the temptation is to remember players in terms of their literal contribution - what did his efforts produce? How much was he sold for? That mindset exists because the modern fan has been tricked into believing that the game is about progress rather than joy and that a season is only worth as much as the league table says it is.
Football, now, is less about immediate gratification and more about future consequence. Rather than taking the time to linger on the beauty of a piece of skill or the exhiliration of a last-minute goal, we’re in a hurry to quantify its greater meaning and chart its relevance against top-four aspirations or title chances.
Rafael van der Vaart was part of the resistance against that. He was an anachronism: a physically flawed player whose attitude, conditioning and skill-set all belonged to a different era. He struggled to maintain his influence across a full ninety minutes, his hamstrings were always a muscle fibre away from tearing and anything approaching hard-work he clearly to be beneath him.
Van der Vaart was special and he played like he knew it. English fans are typically preoccupied with work-rate and determination and will always forgive failure from those who appear to care. There’s something unique, then, about a player who challenges that truism and who is able to force his way into a supporter’s heart with pure, undiluted ability.
He was a natural favourite, certainly, and his emotional spontaneity forged an immediate bond with the crowd, but that fondness was derived from more than just rival-baiting or grandmother-kissing. Van der Vaart, at his core, was an almost impossibly talented footballer, but he was restricted by some very obvious limitations - and yet, that never seemed to trouble him. He was at ease with who he was and oddly content to exist within himself.
That made him relatable. We may applaud those who scratch and claw their way to the very top of their chosen field, but we childishly admire anyone able to flash their brilliance with a shrug of the shoulders.
The modern superstar is too perfect. Not only are the contemporary elite typically blessed with otherworldly ability, but they usually glint with film-star flawlessness. They are athletically super-human, chiseled deities who have an almost holographic quality.
That wasn’t van der Vaart, he had a texture. Yes, he was good-looking in an unconventional, raffish sort of way, but he was very three-dimensional and also extremely normal. He would walk when he couldn’t run, watch when he didn’t feel like defending, and sulk when he didn’t get his own way. He was an amateur with a professional’s gloss.
As a player, he was everything one could want in a guilty pleasure. Even those who loved him most would concede that he was highly flawed and that he was only ever as good as he wanted to be, but - again - that was almost part of his appeal. He was the athlete who we all wanted to be: the effortless game-changer who played almost by his own rules, but whose left-foot had been touched by God.
Where there are luxury players, there is typically frustration - but Van der Vaart avoided that by being incredibly efficient. It was contradictory, really, because whilst never being hard-working, his instinct for the game allowed him to regularly find goal-scoring positions and, when he did, he was lethal.
He didn’t just score, either, he did so in the most elegant ways. He didn’t thump the ball, he caressed it; he seemed to care more about how he scored than if he did. He returned twenty-eight goals in his two seasons at Tottenham and very few of those weren’t artistically perfect. His placed side-foot against Swansea, his chest and finish in the North London derby, his in-step across the keeper at Villa Park and then, later in the same season, at the Reebok Stadium. Van der Vaart was just so reliably stylish and, cliche though it may be, he really did make the hardest part of the game looks so very easy.
Because Van der Vaart had no real effect on Tottenham’s position within English’s football’s hierarchy, in hindsight his stay felt like a gift and a break from the game’s more relentless realities - like a short holiday, those 78 games were a reminder that football can be about beauty as well as finance. He dropped out of the sky, as if from nowhere - and for as long as he stayed he embodied everything that was fun and watchable about the sport and, unusually for the present day, he played in a very joyful, pure way, as if almost unencumbered by the final result.
What a privilege that was, what a welcome break from the grind.
The record books can never illustrate his type of greatness and goal-return statistics and highlight videos are too shallow a medium to properly document his worth. But if you were there and if you saw it for yourself, you know what a wonderful luxury it was to have him in your side.
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