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
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The Independent Football

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.