Van der Vaart’s drawn out goodbye – The story of a disappointing end

He should have been one of the last missing pieces of the puzzle when Hamburger SV purchased him back in 2012. Rafael van der Vaart was the long-lost son of the HSV fans and he finally made a return to the Imtech Arena on the last day of the transfer window during the 2012/13 season. The club’s sugar daddy, Klaus-Michael Kühne, opened his wallet to extend a loan for the purchase of one of his favourite players. The Red Shorts paid 13 million Euros for the Dutch playmaker, which to this day is still the record transfer fee paid by the club.

Back then things were seemingly getting sunnier for the club. HSV  finished in 15th the season before, but now they could finally add a bit more spice to their attack after the purchase of the fan favourite. In the fans’ mind van der Vaart was still the player who could turn games around by playing a brilliant pass or by scoring from a long-range shot. During his first stay at the club the 32-year-old had managed to join club legend Uwe Seeler as the only player who had scored for HSV in 7 consecutive Bundesliga matches. If things would go well, it seemed, it could be van der Vaart’s turn to cement his status as one of the club’s legends.

At the time it didn’t look like he had lost any of his qualities on the pitch. Van der Vaart had scored 24 goals in his 63 appearances for Tottenham in the Premier League. The Dutchman delivered in his first few matches, and despite three losses on the bounce at the start of the season it seemed like HSV had gotten an injection of some much-needed leadership on the pitch. In his first match back at the club the Dutchman ran his socks off, trying to turn things around despite HSV having Petr Jiracek sent off for a brutal tackle in the opponent’s box.

A mixed bag and trouble at home

It was schizophrenic season for the club. Periodically Thorsten Fink’s team could play brilliant football, helped on by stars like van der Vaart, Heung-Min Son and ReneAdler – for instance when they won 4-1 against Borussia Dortmund at the Signal Iduna Park – but far too often the team couldn’t get their act together (with their 9-2 defeat away to Bayern being the prime example for that tendency). After the defeat against Bayern van der Vaart was made captain, to relieve Heiko Westermann of the pressure he had felt over the last few months. In the end the midfielder didn’t manage to inspire his teammates in his new leadership role to gain more stability. 14 wins and 14 losses and the goal difference of -8 meant that HSV had barely missed out on qualifying for the Europa League, 3 points behind surprise package Eintracht Frankfurt.

However, the club had taken a considerable step into the right direction given that they barely had escaped relegation the season before. The Dutchman had chipped in with 5 goals and 10 assists, not a good season by his standards, but decent nevertheless. His performances on the pitch didn’t make many headlines that year, but his divorce – which may have included a slap across the face of his former wife – along with starting to date a friend of his ex-wife and the ex-wife of a former teammate, were the main stories the papers wrote about van der Vaart that season.

Into the abyss

If the first season may have been a slight let down for the Dutchman and the fans alike, what was to follow was certainly even worse. First sporting director Frank Arnesen was let go and replaced by Oliver Kreuzer, and then coach Thorsten Fink was fired after just five match days.  Kühne had been an outspoken critic of Fink’s work at the club, and in the end his wishes were granted. Experienced Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk was hired to replace Fink. At the start of his career at the Imtech Arena things started to improve for the club and van der Vaart. The Dutchman produced 7 goals and 6 assists in the Hinrunde, which allowed the HSV to dream a bit about a finish in the top half of the table at the end of the season.

However, three losses in the last three matches of the Hinrunde saw the club falling like a rock in the table, ending the first half of the season on a disappointing 14th spot. The Rückrunde started in the same fashion, and it didn’t take long before van Marwijk was history. His successor, Mirko Slomka, tried to get the best out of the players, but in the end HSV only managed to gather 11 points from the last 17 matches of the season. Van der Vaart struggled at times with injuries and his form hit a new low. Under Slomka the high-profile van der Vaart seemed like a foreign element within in the team. Only three more assists and not a single goal was the disappointing result of van der Vaart’s second half of the season. Slomka’s emphasis on quick counter attacking and limited possession was certainly not the best fit for the Dutchman, has many had predicted before the former Hannover coach started to take charge of the team.

HSV managed to escape relegation, despite only gathering 27 points that season. The team’s poor performances were largely symbolised by the awful performances brought to the table by their most experienced players, mainly Westermann, Adler and van der Vaart.

The last dance

Already during the summer transfer window there were voices among the HSV fans who wanted van der Vaart to go. His chance of becoming a HSV legend was non-existent. Even his biggest fan, the eccentric millionaire Kühne, was in favour of selling the midfielder during the summer transfer window. However, the player is currently still sticking it out at the club.

The critics in the press have written about the team’s and van der Vaart’s performances so far this season using unflattering words, and rightly so. Coach Zinnbauer decided shortly after he took over to move the Dutchman into holding midfield, which hasn’t matters for the player. During his 19 games this season, the former Ajax man has only managed to win 37% of his duels and his pass completion rate has dropped down to 73%. Despite a number of abysmal performances this season, van der Vaart is currently still the club’s top scorer with 4 goals (3 of those coming from penalty spot).

The criticism of the player has led many to believe that he’ll try to find his luck elsewhere. Both Bild and Hamburger Morgenpost have reported that the officials at the club have told van der Vaart that his contract won’t be extended, which leaves him free to leave at the end of the season. Bild writes that there are clubs from Italy, Spain and the US that are currently quite interested in obtaining the Dutchman’s signature on a contract.

It’ll be a quiet farewell, leaving the player, the officials and the fans alike all disappointed over how the 13 million Euros transfer turned out in the end. Van der Vaart never really managed to recapture the magic he brought to the pitch during his first stay at the club, and these days he serves as one of the symbols for the club’s decline over the last two seasons.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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