Day of terror sealed Van Persie switch
As eloquent as Arsene Wenger is in his second language, he is running out of ways to praise Robin van Persie. It is not only the Dutchman's technical brilliance -- "his intelligence and movement are exceptional" -- but the strength of his leadership -- "he is the perfect captain" -- which are testing the Arsenal manager's vocabulary.
"He has totally matured and is much more focused on efficiency," he added yesterday. "He is a football lover. He came here as a winger, but when you look at the goals he has scored, you can only say 'fantastic'."
In the wake of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri's summer departures, Van Persie has emerged as a cohesive force for the team. Wenger took the gamble of resting him against Marseille in midweek and the team suffered, producing an anaemic performance in a 0-0 draw. You suspect it will be West Brom's defence that suffers this afternoon.
Van Persie's flourishing as a leader in their time of need is vindication of Arsenal's faith in the Dutchman. They saw in him a strength of character that others did not.
And it all traces back to a night of violence and fear seven years ago and a game that ultimately persuaded Arsenal that this slight, skilful Dutchman had the courage and resilience to become a player capable of joining a team that was closing on an unbeaten season.
The setting was a cup match between Feyenoord's U-21s and their Ajax counterparts at the Amsterdam club's De Toekomst training ground, but this was no ordinary youth game. The Ajax hooligan hard core had turned up in their hundreds, fuelled by a hatred of their Rotterdam rivals which was then at fever pitch. Seven years earlier, one of the leaders of the Ajax hooligan groups, Carlo Picornie, had been killed with a clawhammer in an organised fight.
Reprisals and revenge attacks were frequent. As Van Persie came out on to the pitch, the intimidation began. There was no tunnel and no fencing at the training ground and the players had to effectively walk through the crowd. Flares and firecrackers were set off, bottles were thrown and the striker felt himself showered with beer and spit.
Sitting nervously in the stand was Steve Rowley, Wenger's chief scout. Van Persie had no idea he was there. Arsenal had been watching him for a year but it was a real challenge trying to discover whether Van Persie was good enough.
Van Persie had broken into the Feyenoord first team at 17 and, in that debut season, was in the starting XI which won the 2002 Uefa Cup. But senior players like Pierre van Hooijdonk, Kees van Wonderen and Paul Bosvelt did not take to this super-confident upstart, with his flash car and his tricks on the training ground.
At the start of the next season, the club's coach Bert van Maarwijk took umbrage at the way Van Persie was warming up during a Champions League qualifier against Fenerbahce in Istanbul. While the rest of the squad flew on to Monaco for the Uefa Super Cup against Real Madrid, Van Persie was sent to fly home alone.
To make it worse, Van Persie was accused of hanging with the wrong crowd. He had grown up playing street football in the 'cages' (high fenced urban pitches) of Kralingen in east Rotterdam, where he was brought up by his father, Bob, an artist. Many of the kids he played with on the back streets were the children of Moroccan immigrants and he forged strong friendships.
The school caretaker, Sietje Mouch, also Moroccan, was a former professional and had taken Van Persie under his wing, coming to watch him play and offering advice, while Van Persie also had a girlfriend of Moroccan background. The Netherlands can be more conservative than the laid-back stereotype and petty prejudices only added to the case against Van Persie at Feyenoord.
Wenger had first seen Van Persie play in a youth game between Feyenoord and ASEC, the Ivory Coast team run by Wenger's friend Jean-Marc Guillou, but wanted evidence that he had developed physically and mentally.
Damien Comolli, then Arsenal's European scout, flew out to watch him in a rare first-team start, only for Van Persie to get sent off. Rowley watched him in game after game and, after speaking to friends in Holland, began to think that Van Persie was simply misunderstood, mismanaged. What happened that night at De Toekomst convinced him he had the right man for Arsenal.
With his reputation and talent, and the fact he was from Rotterdam, Van Persie was the obvious target for the Ajax fans. Yet despite the vitriol coming his way, he stayed cool. Feyenoord lost 3-1 but Van Persie scored the goal and never shirked taking a corner, despite the bottles and coins flying his way. This was grace under pressure.
Then events took a turn for the sinister. At the final whistle the Ajax hooligans poured on to the pitch and started beating up the Feyenoord players. Van Persie was chased, punched and kicked. It would have been a lot worse had Jorge Acuna, a Chilean player who had struck up a friendship with Van Persie, not run over to help protect him.
Acuna ended up hospitalised with rib, neck and head injuries. Only the intervention of Marco van Basten, the Ajax youth coach, and some of their players prevented further injuries.
"We had to run for our lives," said Van Persie afterwards. "Back in the dressing-room players were crying. It was awful. There was massive panic and it was the worst thing I have ever experienced."
By the time Rowley had got back to his hotel and calmed down, he realised that he needed no more proof of Van Persie's character. A weaker man would not have been able to get through a game like that, let alone play with composure and commitment.
There was a twist, though. That night a bruised and shaken Van Persie was being driven over to another Amsterdam hotel, near Schiphol airport, where delegates of PSV Eindhoven, including coach Guus Hiddink, wanted to meet him. Van Persie wanted out of Feyenoord and PSV were ready to do the deal.
Arsenal's response was rapid. After tracking him for so long, they moved with speed to get a deal done and head off Hiddink. So convinced were Feyenoord that Van Persie's talent had been spoiled by temperament that they let him go for just £2.75m that summer (Arsenal sold Francis Jeffers to Charlton for £2.6m to make room). Feyenoord must wince every time they recall it.
That terrifying Thursday night in Amsterdam turned out to be the most important game in Van Persie's career. Amid the chaos after the final whistle he feared the only place he was going was hospital.
Instead, it was the night he effectively became an Arsenal player. (© Daily Telegraph, London)