When Rafael van der Vaart returned to Hamburg this past summer he received a homecoming fit for a King. Eager fans lined up at the airport to catch a glimpse of one of the club’s most successful players. Hamburg’s football darling was back for good.
His comeback coincided with the club’s 125th anniversary and what better gift than the return of a man who was viewed by many as an answer to the club’s failings.
The Dutch international, however, wasn’t interested in going along with the fairytale.
In September he told Bild, “I’m not a saviour. I know that many are expecting me to perform miracles, but I can’t walk on water. I’m here to play great football and to improve the quality of the team. HSV will be a top club again.”
The 29-year old knew better than to bask in the glory despite the idolizing, and he refused to compare himself to any of the current greats in football.
“I’m not Superman, Messi or Ronaldo. Nonetheless, I want to further help this team. I believe that there is a lot of potential here. I will settle in very well with this team.”
That was the outlook of a realist, who has learned from his years in the English Premier League and La Liga. Van der Vaart left Hamburg in 2008 to fulfill his childhood dream of playing at the world’s bigger clubs. His career with Real Madrid was short lived though. He was seen as surplus and in 2010 he joined Tottenham Hotspur. In his first season, he scored 15 goals and added 9 assists. Injuries, however, would get the best of him and despite two decent seasons he was on his way back to the port city.
It’s not as if he hadn’t received offers from other clubs, but he made it clear his gut instinct was to return to the Bundesliga. Some speculated it was a risky endeavour for it could compromise his international career.
When Bild asked him if his choice to join the German side had anything to do with Louis van Gaal’s decision to rule him out as a starting eleven for the national side, he laid the rumour to rest.
“I spoke to van Gaal on the phone for ten minutes. He said that I made a very good decision. For van Gaal the Bundesliga is the best league in the world. He is confident that I will return to my old form and join the national eleven again very soon.”
For now, he feels at home in Hamburg and so do his family. Aside from referring to his family as quasi-Germans, he also hinted at possibly retiring here. But his attachment to this city isn’t unwarranted. His son was born here and his wife is a TV personality in Germany. Indeed, upon leaving England and right after thanking Spurs fans for their support, Sylvie van der Vaart tweeted that the time had come to go back home. ‘Home’ here referring to Hamburg and not Amsterdam (or any other Dutch city).
While his performance hasn’t been as stellar as expected, he’s still an integral part of the team. In 11 appearances for HSV this season he’s collected one goal and four assists. He currently leads his team in assists.
Despite a rocky start to the season, the team’s first taste of victory came against the Bundesliga champs. Van der Vaart played a crucial role in ending BVB’s 31-game unbeaten streak by providing two assists. He would score his first goal a week later against Borussia Moenchengladbach. While he proved very effective against BVB, consistency is still an issue with the player. He failed to rise to the occasion against Bayern Munich earlier this month. Having had several chances on net and posing as a real threat throughout the match, Van der Vaart was unable to finish and the team lost 3-0.
But the club’s coach Thorsten Fink made it clear from the beginning, “Rafael can’t win games on his own. The load has to be spread around.”
The future of Hamburg shouldn’t rely on Van der Vaart alone. Although he did score 39 goals in over 90 games in his previous spell with the club, the team also needs to continue building on the likes of Heung-Min Son (who leads the team in goals), Artjoms Rudnevs, Heiko Westermann and Rene Adler. Progress takes time and Van der Vaart understands that more than anyone.
“Four years ago, BVB wasn’t anywhere near the top and now? Two-time champions. They are our model.”
Currently, Hamburg has 12 goals in 13 games and miraculously sits in tenth place with 17 points. It’s an impressive position considering that all the other teams in the top 10 have scored 16 or more goals. The only other team with similar numbers (13 goals in 13 games) is Wolfsburg, which has mustered only 15 points and hangs in 13th position.
Van der Vaart has high hopes for his club and for now he’s happy if they qualify for the Europa League. Chasing the Champions League title, however, is something his team will embark on next year, he said.
But to qualify for the Europa League Hamburg need to step on the accelerator for the rest of the season. To safely secure a spot they must at least finish fifth and a worst case scenario would be a sixth or seventh place result, but one that would still give them a shot at qualification.
While this is the season to be jolly, poor Hamburg have just received a major blow to their continental aspirations. The team’s star player will likely not return to the line-up until the new year due to a muscle injury. Chances are, Hamburg will now to have to “spread the load” quickly in order to remain competitive in time for van der Vaart’s return.