Rafael van der Vaart will always be considered a fan favorite at Tottenham Hotspur. The Dutch playmaker was signed for £8m from Real Madrid in 2010 in the waning hours of the transfer window to the absolute shock and delight of Spurs fans and became an integral part of the side under Harry Redknapp. He went on to score 28 goals for Spurs in 77 appearances over three seasons, but left Spurs for Hamburg after Redknapp was fired and Tottenham appointed Andre Villas-Boas as manager.
Now 35, Van der Vaart’s career is winding down — he is currently a reserve player at Danish side Midtjylland — and has opened up about his career and his time at Tottenham in a big interview with FourFourTwo. In it he says coming to Spurs was a split-second choice, but one he has never once regretted.
“[The Tottenham transfer] was very last minute. Jose Mourinho had been honest about my chances at Real Madrid, telling me they’d bought Mesut Ozil to play in my position. He said I could stay, but that I wasn’t in his starting XI. At that point I was still keen to stay at Real for another season, so I headed to a training camp with the national team.
“But at around 4pm on deadline day, my lawyer called me to say Spurs were interested in signing me. I asked him if I could think about it. He replied that I had to decide within two hours! I started to evaluate everything, then took a little nap. Suddenly I was jolted awake by the phone going off. It was about 5.40pm and my lawyer was on the phone again, telling me that I had to decide there and then. I thought for a split second, then said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” I had no time to overthink it or discuss it with anybody – it was pure intuition. Very soon I realised how happy I was with the decision. From the moment I arrived at Spurs Lodge, the club’s former training ground, I felt at home.”
Waking up from a nap and making a split second decision to relocate to England and play for Tottenham feels like peak Rafael van der Vaart to me, but there’s no question that he meshed perfectly with that Tottenham side under Harry Redknapp that went to the Champions League quarterfinals. He spoke about his admiration for Redknapp and how his managerial style at Spurs suited him.
“He was a magical guy – a father figure – but Harry could also be rock-hard. He was very much an old-school type of coach. During a team talk, he’d pull out a little piece of paper on which he’d written down the starting XI and would say things to us like, “Just give the ball to Luka [Modric], then Luka can try to find Rafa, and you will win the game.” Then, if we’d played a really good first half, he would openly praise you, saying things like, “F—ing hell, Rafa, what a player!” He gave you a boost – you would run faster for someone like him. Redknapp’s style suited my own very well, and it all fitted in perfectly with my overall positive image of the English game while I was at the club.”
While Rafa was a hit at Spurs and fans loved him, the one criticism of his play that I remember from those days was his seeming inability to go 90 minutes. It felt like in every match, Redknapp would yank him at about the 65 minute mark with VDV sucking wind. His play style also didn’t endear him to Redknapp’s managerial replacement, Andre Villas-Boas, who made it clear that Rafa wasn’t really in his plans.
That led to his eventual return to Hamburg, where he played earlier in his career, but Van der Vaart made it clear about his affection for his time at Spurs and how he regrets leaving when he did.
“Andre Villas-Boas wasn’t the ideal coach for me. He bought Gylfi Sigurdsson and then told me he would be his new No.10. I found that a little bit strange considering what I’d achieved over the previous two years. I started the first match of the season on the subs’ bench, so when Hamburg approached me, I thought it was a nice opportunity to go back. But I shouldn’t have left Tottenham, though it’s always easy to say that with hindsight. I had some brilliant times during my second spell in Hamburg, but the fact that we were in the relegation play-off in the second and third seasons wasn’t good.
“Leaving Tottenham was not my best choice, but apart from that, there haven’t been too many big regrets during my career.”
The full article goes all the way back to his early childhood and touches on his career stops at Ajax and Real Madrid. It’s well worth a read as a retrospective — it’s clear his affection for Tottenham is real, and that he considers it the best period of his career, even all these years later.