It was a day of joy in Seville’s green side as Rafael van der Vaart was introduced as Real Betis’ new star player. A few hundred people turned up at the airport to cheer him off the plane and a few thousand got into the stadium to get a first look of the former Ajax, Real Madrid and HSV man in the green and white stripes. Coming out of the stadium, interviewed fans stated their delight and spirits were high, especially for the Dutchman, who stated he was there to “win the league… and the Champions League”. As I said, spirits were high. However, if they had watched their new man for the last couple of seasons at HSV, their enthusiasm might have not been as prominent.
There’s no arguing that Van der Vaart’s first stint at HSV was a success, earning a 15m€ move to Real Madrid in 2008. But his second coming, returning to the Imtech Arena in the summer of 2012, wasn’t quite as successful. Despite a promising first season after his comeback, in which HSV finished just outside the European spots, things started going downhill the following season, especially after a spat with his now ex-wife Sylvie at a New Year’s Eve party, which ended up with the Dutchman hitting her followed by the couple’s splitting up. While it may seem like an excuse, Van der Vaart’s performances in the Rückrunde of the 2013-2014 season were considerably below par; he didn’t score a single goal and managed just three assists.
Despite finding love again with his ex-wife’s best friend, former wife of ex-HSV defender Khalid Boulahrouz, good old Rafael never really found his best form again. The new kid on the block, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, seemed to have stolen the Dutchman’s limelight, being better at pretty much everything that Van der Vaart was known for being good at, such as free-kicks, set pieces, assists… The problem was that both couldn’t play in the same position behind the striker, so it was the more talented Çalhanoğlu who was moved out on the wing or as a false striker to accommodate the Dutchman, hampering his skills just for Van der Vaart’s benefit, who repaid this gesture with more sub-standard performances.
Van der Vaart’s 2012 return was also a poor piece of business by Klaus-Michael Kühne, HSV’s famous sugar daddy… sorry, I mean “fan”. Kühne put money from his pocket to bring some big names to Hamburg in exchange for having some of their transfer rights, something that he also did with Van der Vaart, although he must have known that this was an investment bordering 13m€ that would see no return. Perhaps the joy of the thousands of HSV fans when Van der Vaart came back were worth 13m€ to Kühne but from a purely business point of view, the deal has been a disaster.
Last season was a revelation and a confirmation of what many had feared: Van der Vaart was past it. He no longer justified his wages, north of 3.5m€, and was clearly hampering the development of players like Çalhanoğlu, who can’t have found it too hard to move to Leverkusen and to play in his natural position. Last season’s numbers were the final nail in the coffin: 4 goals and 1 assist in the Bundesliga (emphasis on the single assist), a poor return for HSV’s so-called playmaker. Once again, HSV stayed up by the skin of their teeth, this time in the relegation playoff against Karlsruher SC.
Van der Vaart has continuously shown his love for the city of Hamburg, going as far as stating that he “would never leave the city”, even when he “stopped playing”, something which has endeared him to the faithful. His return in 2012 brought heaps of excitement back into the club and its fans but it’s fair to say that, ultimately, it didn’t work out. The situation deteriorated to the point that the famed midfielder was named as the most disappointing player in the Bundesliga by his fellow peers, according to kicker.
Despite comments like the above, Van der Vaart has always said he’d like to end his career in Andalusia, more specifically at Cadiz, which is next to his grandparents’ town of Chiclana. Now, he’ll have to settle for Betis, and while fans might be excited, it’s an opportunity for his previous club’s fans to start with a clean slate, without the ghosts of Frank Arnesen and even Van der Vaart himself, both of whom have conditioned the club’s performances on the pitch for the last few years.
Van der Vaart, 32, was once one of Europe’s most exciting talents and has been very good for all the clubs he has played at, but there’s no denying that his second stint at HSV has done more bad than good. Thanks for the memories Rafael, but the time to move on has been long overdue.