Dazzling Dutch midfielder has taken Spurs to a new level
Some exceptional talents are obvious from a very early age; others take a few years before they blossom into something remarkable. Tottenham Hotspur's Rafael van der Vaart falls firmly into the former camp.
The arrival of the Dutch playmaker at White Hart Lane this season, along with the electric brilliance of Gareth Bale, has been the inspiration that has prompted Harry Redknapp's attacking side to move up another level, so much so that they are now being touted as potential champions.
"I thought the style of football at Spurs would suit him -- and I think it has suited him like a dream," says Johnny Metgod, a compatriot of Van der Vaart's and a former Tottenham player who helped persuade Van der Vaart to move to north London.
The 27-year-old adjusted to his new surroundings remarkably quickly and, as clubs try to find bargains among the inflated prices of the January transfer window, Tottenham can justifiably claim him as the best piece of business this season as they pursue a second successive top-four finish, or better.
The viability of Tottenham's claim to become champions will be given a robust examination on Sunday, when they play host to the league leaders Manchester United.
United were the side the young Van der Vaart supported and his first steps towards Sunday's meeting were taken in 1988.
He was five when his father, Ramon, took him along to the local amateur club De Kennemers -- named after an ancient race of warriors who lived in the sand dunes that lie outside the quiet coastal town of Beverwijk.
That was the summer when Dutch football celebrated its finest hour, as Ruud Gullit lifted the European Championship trophy.
Youth coach Jur Zandbergen was the man who greeted the Van der Vaarts, and he remembers a proud Ramon leading the young Rafael by the hand to ask if his son could join.
Zandbergen said: "Here was an enthusiastic father and a calm, pleasant young boy, with good ball sense. One of Rafael's first presents had been a football, from his father."
Zandbergen was struck by the way Van der Vaart had a natural understanding for the ebb and flow of the game, coupled with a fine technique, honed by hours spent shooting tennis balls at empty beer bottles in the trailer park where he lived in a three-bedroom caravan with his parents and brother Fernando.
Zandbergen had to bend the rules to allow the young Rafael to join the club. "I took the boy on even though he was really one year too young," Zandbergen remembered.
"However, he really stood out, and not just with his talent on the ball. He did not dive on to the ball with the other boys in a big melee, but freed himself up. He could make a good pass and understood the game from the start. Rafael always went up to the next pupil group a year before the normal age for that group, because he was so good."
Zandbergen tutored Van der Vaart for five years, before the boy moved on to Dutch football's premier finishing school, Ajax. "At the age of 10 his father took him to an open day at Ajax where he competed with about 500 other boys," the coach said.
"He was one of the 15 to 20 chosen for the Ajax academy. For years his father took him to Amsterdam from Beverwijk for his training three times per week after school.
"I admire his father for doing this. He was a busy, self-employed man, who had to travel around a lot, but he did it for Rafael."
Van der Vaart quickly found his feet at Ajax, and made his debut for the club aged 17. During his time in Amsterdam he twice won the Dutch title in a team that also included Wesley Sneijder.
In 2005, the young midfielder moved to Hamburg, where he was immensely popular with the club's supporters, despite once being photographed holding a Valencia shirt before a move to the Spanish club fell through.
Then in 2008 he joined Real Madrid where he began well, but then struggled to make it into the starting XI as the club underwent three changes of manager. He would have left the club in 2009 had his wife Sylvie not been undergoing treatment for breast cancer at a clinic in Madrid. She recovered and the move to Tottenham happened last summer for just £8m in the final hours of transfer deadline day.
The move was a particularly shrewd deal for Tottenham and Redknapp, who owes a debt of gratitude to another former Dutch midfielder who played for both Tottenham and Real Madrid -- the Derby County coach Metgod who helped convince Van der Vaart to leave the Spanish capital and rebuild his career at White Hart Lane.
Metgod spent the summer as one of Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk's opposition scouts at the World Cup where he became close friends with Van der Vaart, who had grown disgruntled with life on the bench at Real Madrid.
When Tottenham's interest became apparent in August, Van der Vaart contacted Metgod for his advice, and the former Nottingham Forest midfielder was only too happy to recommend a move to London.
Metgod remembers: "As a former Spurs player, I had continued to follow the club and I like the way they play under Harry Redknapp. So, I told him I thought it would be good for him. He had not been playing regularly for Madrid, so the most important thing was to move to a club where he would get games. In my mind it was the right move for him."
Van der Vaart has found a grateful new home at Tottenham, generally playing in the hole behind a lone striker, although he has a remit to play pretty much wherever he likes. His return of 11 goals in 18 games for the club only skims the surface of the impact he has made.
He manages to bring the best out of those around him, not least Luka Modric, who is excelling this season having a kindred spirit alongside him. The undoubted highlight of Van der Vaart's first six months in England has been the 3-1 victory over Champions League holders Internazionale, the first time he had played against his old friend Sneijder.
"It was great for me, as long as you win the game," Van der Vaart said of the contest with Sneijder.
"It was nice and you can imagine when we were little kids, nine or 10 years old playing on the youth teams of Ajax, then in the first team together. This was the first time we played against each other. It was a really special moment."
Van der Vaart has electrified Tottenham, but Metgod believes the player is benefiting from the move to England as much as Spurs are. His work rate in the past has been questioned, not his talent, but Metgod has seen evidence that Van der Vaart is changing his ways.
"There is no doubt about his talent, he is so gifted, but what has surprised me since his move to Spurs has been his desire to work hard for the team. He is putting everything into the game," Metgod said.
"That is what he has added to his game since his move to Spurs. People in the past might have questioned whether he is capable of doing that, but there is no doubt that now he is putting everything into every game, when Spurs have the ball and when they don't. He will get fitter, because he needs to get used to playing regularly again. And when he is fitter, who knows what he is capable of doing?"
Van der Vaart's new career in England is followed with interest back in Beverwijk by Zandbergen, who looks forward every year to when his young protege returns for a street football tournament, held for junior teams in the car park of the De Kennemers club every May.
Both Rafael and his father Ramon are heavily involved in the running of this tournament, which raises thousands of euros for several local charities.
Zandbergen said it was typical of Van der Vaart that he should want to create this tournament, which has been running since 2003. He said: "Rafael has always remained the same as he was as a kid. When he sees me he puts his arm around me and says: 'Hi coach, how are you?'"
In Beverwijk they are not surprised the Tottenham fans have taken so quickly to their new hero Van der Vaart. (© Independent News Service)