'I'm handling defeat every week. And I can't deal with it any more'
As personal tragedy and health issues take their toll, Van Barneveld crashes out in first round and explains decision to step away from the oche
It wasn't meant to be like this for a man who has provided so many great World Championship moments. If last night's defeat proves to be the final time that Raymond Van Barneveld graces the Alexandra Palace stage, the fact that he was beaten by Lithuania's Darius Labanauskas will barely be a dot on his legacy.
There was the unforgettable PDC world final against Phil Taylor in 2007. The first ever nine-dart finish at Alexandra Palace in 2009. And more recently, the stunning double-header against Michael van Gerwen at the 2016 and 2017 world championships, by common consent two of the greatest world championship games ever played.
Last night, the 51-year-old was a shadow of one of the game's great fighters when he was beaten 3-2 in what was, at times, a farcical match.
In the opening leg of the final set, Labanauskas, with the advantage of throwing first, missed 11 darts at a double. Van Barneveld somehow found himself with a chance to win the leg but missed four times and allowed his opponent off the hook. In the next, Van Barneveld missed six doubles. He was broken in the leg, and in the match.
And yet, as he spoke about why he is giving himself just one more year on tour with the plan to bow out at next year's World Championships, you get the impression that this defeat will hurt, but that there are more important things in his life.
When he speaks, his voice is calm and unflustered, but in a way it only makes what he has to say so much more chilling. He's casually listing all the friends of his who have died over the last year.
"There was a manager for the national team," he says. "I played so many years with him. And he fell in the street and died. A week later, his wife visited me at an exhibition, crying like hell."
Then there was the close friend who passed away in August while Van Barneveld was in a plane above Australia, where he was playing in the World Series of Darts.
"I got a text message," he remembers. "It said: 'Ray, tonight I'm going to sleep forever. I hope you have a fantastic life and do what you're good at.'"
The reason he's sharing all this is to explain why, for all darts has given the previously small-time Dutch postman, he can't put himself through it any longer.
Simply put: after three decades, he's tired of not being there. The grandchildren are growing up. Birthday and wedding invitations have fallen by the wayside. Holidays have been promised and not taken. Last summer, while he was playing an exhibition tournament in Barnsley, his wife Silvia was the victim of an armed burglary at their house in The Hague. And over the last year, four of his close friends have died.
"You don't even have the time to pay your respects and say goodbye and go to the funeral," he says bitterly.
"And everyone can say: well yeah Ray, but you earn money. Well, money isn't everything. You just keep on going and going and going. But it will affect you. It's enough."
You feel strangely devastated listening to all this. Ever since Van Barneveld emerged into our living rooms in the mid-1990s with his thin moustache, his fluid, unflappable throwing style and a picture of Barney Rubble embroidered onto his shirt, he's provided some of the sport's all-time great moments.
"For you, happy memories," he says. "For me, not so. Well, not for the last four years. I'm not winning any competitions. Early wake-up calls. Late to bed. Handling defeat. Pleasure becomes frustrating. You know what you can do, but it's not happening."
Then there is his diabetes, with which he has been living for almost a decade and is now beginning to play havoc with his eyesight.
"It's hard," he says. "I love food, and sometimes when you're in the car for three or four hours, you eat a McDonald's or a KFC. And then there's the stress factor.
"The next morning, you feel dizzy, your eyes are blurry, which means you have high blood sugar. Sometimes I wake up and my blood sugar level is 11. It's supposed to be between four and seven. And you're doing this two or three times a week."
Van Barneveld is now 51 years old, and in recent years the full-time demands of being a professional darts player have begun to take their toll.
"People are not aware, with all due respect, that one Premier League match - 20 minutes on stage - costs me three full days," he says.
"I have to travel on a Wednesday afternoon, then the whole of Thursday you're in preparation, and then on Friday morning you're travelling on to the Pro Tours, or you're flying back home. You're always away from home.
"Of course the prize money is good. I think I earned £50,000 this year. But half that money goes to pay your flights and hotels, pay your manager, pay your food and drink. And if you're not winning anything, you've done it all for nothing."
You wonder if, on some level, Van Barneveld isn't doing himself a slight disservice. After all, despite his advancing years, the unprecedented expansion of the sport's talent pool and his diabetes, he's done exceptionally simply to endure for so long.
"Some Dutch interviewer asked me the same question," he says. "'Ray, why are you so hard on yourself? You're five times world champion, you're class, you're fantastic'.
"And I said: OK, I have a question for you. How many times was I in the world championship final?
"He said: 'Well, er…'. But of course you don't remember. The runner-up is the first loser. I was there at the World Cup final in Johannesburg (in 2010).
"I can still see Arjen Robben bearing down on goal, like he's going to score. But Holland lost, and nobody remembers them. I'm handling defeat every single week. And I can't deal with it any more."
The thing is, Van Barneveld would quite happily put up with the labours of the touring life if he were still winning. But he's not. It's been 12 years since his last world title, five years since his last major win, and last night's defeat means he will drop out of the world's top 16. For a five-time world champion reared on a diet of regular wins, that hurts.
"It's very easy," he says. "I'm a winner. I've lifted trophies my whole career. If I'm playing just for money, I lose concentration, I lose focus.
"The money is good. But you don't have the time to spend it. Every single text message from friends: 'Ray, we miss you. Where are you? England again? My god. When have you got time for us?' If I go on holiday, I feel guilty. That's not right."
And so, 35 years after he first took up the game as an eager teenager in The Hague under the keen tutelage of his father, Van Barneveld is putting his darts back in their case and is beginning to look beyond. A life of leisure, with the odd exhibition thrown in. A spot of TV punditry, if they'll have him. Time for hobbies: you may not know that he's a keen collector of Marvel figurines. He's got more than 1,500. He'd love to go to some of the exhibitions and conventions in America. But he's never had the time until now.
Time for holidays. Time with his wife. Time with the grandchildren. Time to spend with the friends he still has, and mourn the friends he's lost.
And for a man in his sixth decade, who's achieved pretty much everything he can in his profession, it feels - strangely enough - like Raymond van Barneveld's life may just be beginning.
Independent News Service