From a caravan to N17: how one of the 'Famous Four' got to the Lane

An impoverished childhood, a celebrity wife and a lot to prove on the pitch. Ian Herbert assesses Redknapp's latest recruit

Rafael van der Vaart's move from Real Madrid to Tottenham surprised the player as much as Harry Redknapp. Only four days ago, when reunited with the Netherlands squad for the start of their European Championship campaign against San Marino tomorrow night, Van der Vaart declared that he had watched Real's desultory opening-day goalless draw with Mallorca from the stands. "From what I saw, I'll be playing again for them soon," he said.

But Spanish clubs' desire for their new signings to be plunged in immediately put Mesut Ozil and Sergio Canales ahead of Van der Vaart in the queue of midfielders. And after Bayern Munich failed both to agree a fee for the Dutchman and to sell striker Mario Gomez to Liverpool, the prospect of heading for north London suddenly came into play late on Monday.

By last night, it had cemented into probably the best piece of transfer business this summer: £8m for a player whose arrival has the potential to make a major impact on Tottenham's Champions League campaign.

The impression on London may be equally big, given that the player's wife, Sylvie Meis, is an individual with an even bigger profile, and quite probably a bigger salary, than him. Meis, an MTV presenter when they met, has developed her television career to become one of the highest profile faces on the German RTL network, where she began work when Van der Vaart joined Hamburg from Ajax five years ago. Meis announced in June 2009 that she was fighting breast cancer, which was why the Dutchman did not seek a move away from Madrid last summer, though now she has won that battle and resumed her career, he is seeking to revive his own.

The celebrity couple's high life is far removed from the childhood of which Van der Vaart remains so proud, growing up in a large three-bed static caravan, on a site in Beverwijk near the banks of the North Sea, which backed onto the De Kennemers club, for whom he first played.

Van der Vaart, whose willingness to speak to the press in good times and bad is something of a throwback, has been enthusiastic about showing off the old site, where he lived until his late teens, and he has proved a powerful force against anti-gypsy sentiment. (The player is, incidentally, a delight to Dutch journalists, who acknowledged he is the best of their compatriots to work with and actually willing to return most telephone calls. That would be a unique proposition for the Premier League.)

The 27-year-old, born to a Dutch father and a Spanish mother from Cadiz, is fond of telling how he used empty beer bottles as goalposts and obstacles around which to slalom on the caravan site before joining the Ajax academy in the same generation as Everton's John Heitinga and Internazionale's Wesley Sneijder.

But although he is in that quartet of players known in the Dutch press as the "Famous Four"– also including Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben – Van der Vaart is the prodigy who has never quite scaled the heights expected of him when he made his debut as a 17-year-old for Ajax. The move to Hamburg in 2005 was a lesser shift than many expected. "I don't know what Rafael van der Vaart is doing in Hamburg," Johan Cruyff said at the time. "This would have been unthinkable two years ago."

In part, Van der Vaart left because injuries had stunted his development almost as much as the weight of expectation – he was a young captain who took Cruyff's No 10 shirt. But Van der Vaart also came to know, perhaps in a way only David Beckham does among footballers, the punishing effects of a being in a celebrity partnership. Both he and Meis – whom he married in June 2005 – were targeted by opposition fans in the Eredivisie and Meis also endured anti-Semitic abuse and assaults on her character became so bad that a match at ADO Den Haag was halted in September 2004 by a referee who warned spectators, via the stadium announcer, that the match could be abandoned.

Van der Vaart finally got his big move, to Madrid, three years after departing to Hamburg, though he has suffered as much as anyone from the manager's revolving door at the club in the past few years. Juande Ramos used him only as an impact substitute while Manuel Pellegrini told him he was no longer part of his plans as the second wave of galacticos rolled in. He would have left a year ago had his personal circumstances been different.

In a sense, he arrives at White Hart Lane still waiting to reveal his full potential. It seemed symbolic that while the Dutch commentariat were indignant about Bert van Marwijk's decision to sacrifice him for the luxury of two defensive midfielders, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, in South Africa this summer, the tournament's last sight of Van der Vaart came in the challenge on Andres Iniesta which was just too late to stop him scoring Spain's winner.

There were evidently only seconds in it once again on Tuesday, as Tottenham raced to secure a deal for Van der Vaart. Now it's time to prove that it is not too late for a richly gifted individual to fulfill the full depth of that early promise.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage