Robin van Persie: Ex-Arsenal & Manchester United striker on career highlights

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World Cup moments: Van Persie’s spectacular header

After 20 minutes of near breathless conversation, Robin van Persie falls silent.

He has agreed to finish our chat by answering some rapid-fire questions – a quick, light-hearted concept that interviewees tend to find easy and enjoyable. Or at least that’s the idea.

Here we go: Who is the best footballer you’ve played alongside?

“Pffft…

“So difficult to name one…

“Arghhh…

“I have to say one…?

“Can I come back on that? It’s difficult. I have to think about it…”

Let’s move it on: Who was your best strike partner?

“Errr…

“My best strike partner…

“Hmmm…

“It’s not going so well, is it? Oh my god, this is difficult!”

For somebody usually so decisive – on and off the pitch – such hesitance is uncharacteristic.

Next try: What were your best goals for Arsenal, Manchester United and the Netherlands?

Finally, Van Persie does reply with the kind of conviction that defined his career.

“For Arsenal – against Charlton away, the volley. For Manchester United – the volley against Aston Villa. For the national team – against Spain, the header.”

Van Persie took centre stage as Manchester United clinched the 2012-13 Premier League title with a 3-0 win over Aston Villa at Old Trafford, scoring a hat-trick, including a stunning volley from outside the box that he regards as his best goal for the club

Whether playing or talking about football, Van Persie’s area of expertise is goals.

He scored 132 in 278 games at Arsenal, 58 in 105 matches at Manchester United and a record 50 in 102 appearances at international level, not to mention a bagful more during two spells with his hometown club Feyenoord and a stint at Fenerbahce.

Only now there will be no more. Van Persie decided the 2018-19 season would be his last and is currently acclimatising to life as a former player, following 18 years at the top.

“A very good friend of mine said once you retire you end up in a small crisis,” Van Persie tells the BBC. “You can deny it or not, but it is a very weird feeling to stop.

“Because this is something I’ve been doing my whole life and I don’t know better. From the age of five, I’ve been doing keepie-ups and passing against the wall. It ended up in a fantastic road trip!

“That is my comfort zone – I feel happiest on the football pitch, it’s where I’m myself, where I can explore and be creative – but life’s not over.

“There will come new challenges, new adventures, disappointments, fantastic moments. It’s a nice thing to explore that as well – new life, whatever that will be.”

Van Persie is no stranger to challenges.

He left Rotterdam at the age of 20 to join Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ at Arsenal, a side that won the 2003-04 Premier League title without losing a single game.

“If I look back on my period at Arsenal, it makes me really proud,” the 35-year-old recalls. “Because I came as a little boy, playing together with Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure… it was a dream, I was like a kid in a sweet shop.

“So that was really, really special and I learned so much just by looking at these guys, seeing how they behave, how they live, how they play and train. That was crucial for me.”

Playing alongside international stars like countryman Dennis Bergkamp was like a dream come true for Van Persie

Harder still, perhaps, was his move to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 2012.

Having at last overcome incessant injury problems to enjoy his finest campaign so far, Van Persie enraged many Arsenal supporters by defecting to their rivals.

“I get that the fans were angry with me,” he says. “I was the captain, top scorer and we came third that year. But just sometimes you feel you need a challenge, a new adventure.

“If I hurt people, I’m sorry. But that’s me. I made that decision and I stand by it. But that doesn’t mean that I look in a negative way towards Arsenal.

“I cannot say one bad word about Arsenal Football Club – it is a beautiful football club, I had a fantastic time there. I arrived as a little boy, I left as an adult, as a mature player.

“I don’t have a bad feeling towards anyone at Arsenal, I’m thankful towards them, for the chance they’ve given me, for the mistakes I made over the years – because I took a few silly red cards but Arsene still put me on – and just the whole family feeling of the club.

“During that whole process of leaving, Arsene Wenger and I never had an argument or a big fight, we just sometimes on certain levels had different ideas.

Van Persie says he never had an argument with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, pictured shaking the Dutch striker’s hand after he scored an acrobatic volley against Charlton in the 2006-07 season

“At the crucial moments, you have to make tough decisions, and it was a very tough decision. But you have to stand behind them and this is what I did.

“I know if you make decisions like that, you’re not going to please everyone. I learned quite a while ago that I will just be myself, I will make decisions about my life and I will accept them.”

Initially, the switch to Old Trafford could not have worked out better for Van Persie or United.

Following eight years at Arsenal, in which his only piece of silverware was the 2005 FA Cup, the Dutchman secured the top-flight title and golden boot at the first time of asking.

“Thank God I won the league there!” he exclaims with a look of relief. “That was the target. In that first year, everything coming together was really special.

“I got half the [goalscoring] chances at Manchester United than the year before at Arsenal, and I scored almost the same amount of goals. So then you just know that it goes your way.

“I got help from my colleagues, from Sir Alex – he really pushed the guys to pass the ball to me. After a few months, everyone at the club had a feeling like, ‘OK, this is going to be our year’. Difficult games, we won. Lucky goals were going in. When you know it’s going your way…”

However, everything changed with the shock retirement of Ferguson.

“Yeah, that was a blow,” admits Van Persie. “The idea was for him to stay at least three years. But you know how football goes – it changes every day so you have to deal with that.

The chance to play for Sir Alex Ferguson had a major influence over Van Persie’s decision to join Manchester United

“He was one of the big reasons why I signed, but as well to play with proper, real men like Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Over the years I’ve played with proper, mature football players like Henry and Bergkamp – but that was, as well, a reason to go and join United.”

Post-Ferguson, Van Persie’s number of appearances and goals declined. Under David Moyes in 2013-14, he continued to play an important role – but the arrival of Louis van Gaal signalled the beginning of the end and he was sold to Fenerbahce in the summer of 2015.

“Because I had one more year on my deal, maybe I should have stayed,” Van Persie reflects. “But then Van Gaal was the coach and he made it quite clear what his intentions were.

“Then you have to make a decision: Do you stay and fight for your place? Would it be an honest competition or not? Based on all that info, we decided to move on.

“But three years is not three days, it’s still a long period, it’s still a big part of my football career, and in total 11 years of football in England… as a kid I would never have dreamed of that.

“I’m thankful towards Arsenal and Manchester United for the chances I had. I started to play football as a very young guy. We had nothing really, just a tracksuit and a ball. To end up having a career and a life like this, to become the person I am today… I think I stand behind myself.

“I’ve learned, I’ve made so many mistakes, but I did big things too. I’m proud of that. You have to see the bigger picture – not only, ‘Was it the right call or not?’ It was how it was and that’s me.”

So what next for one of the leading centre-forwards of his generation?

Van Persie salutes the Feyenoord fans following the final match of his 18-year career – a 2-0 defeat at home to Den Haag on 12 May in the Dutch Eredivisie

“I won’t take on big commitments in the next year,” he explains. “Although I’m very thankful for the life I have now, and that I had, if you’re on that football train it’s like you have to report at nine o’clock, you have to go on pre-season, you have to be there, you have to perform.

“Now I don’t have to do anything, for the moment. I can be the coach of my own life, fill it how I want to. But I want to bring some structure and still be busy with sports – tennis, swimming, be active. But mainly just enjoy that little bit of freedom I have now, which I never had.

“I can do my [coaching] papers tomorrow if I want to, but I’ve decided to wait a little bit. There’s plenty of time and it’s very different to being a player – you have to start as a baby, basically. If I go down that road, that’s how I’ll see it. I have to learn and I will make mistakes again.

“But over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the game, about systems, tactics, how to manage. I had so many great managers and I learned from every single one of them.

“As a manager, you’re the coach of 25 players, plus 15 staff, plus directors. You have to manage all of these groups and that is completely different from focusing on your own performance as a player.

“If I go down that road it’s a new adventure again, but I don’t know if I will.”

Back to those rapid-fire questions: What was the best moment of your career?

“Making my debut,” Van Persie concludes. “Because without that, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

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