Van Persie must make the most of his street cred

Robin of Highbury: Sculptor's son who couldn't stop playing football learned how to be patient. He will need to be
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The Independent Online

Robin van Persie's mind drifts back seven summers. He's on the streets of Kralingen, a suburb of Rotterdam, his home town. "It happened one time that it was really busy," the Arsenal striker recalls, "and everyone from all the other districts had come. Everyone. And we had a really good team because I'd brought over two players from the Feyenoord youth team. And another very good player from the streets, who I knew, and we had a fantastic goalkeeper. We won all day long. All day. I'll never forget it."

Robin van Persie's mind drifts back seven summers. He's on the streets of Kralingen, a suburb of Rotterdam, his home town. "It happened one time that it was really busy," the Arsenal striker recalls, "and everyone from all the other districts had come. Everyone. And we had a really good team because I'd brought over two players from the Feyenoord youth team. And another very good player from the streets, who I knew, and we had a fantastic goalkeeper. We won all day long. All day. I'll never forget it."

From the streets. Van Persie is talking about street football. The football that made him. That summer's day, on a makeshift, concrete five-a-side court, Van Persie's team won 40 times. Score two goals, from inside a five-yard area, on a pitch measuring maybe 25 yards, and you win. If you win you stay on. For as long as you can. "The team is different every time," Van Persie explains. "You just turn up and choose 'you, you, you'. When I was younger I played every day, no matter if it rained." If the sun shone, there were 20 teams. "So you play from early in the morning until 3pm," he says. "You have a cut-off point, otherwise you'd never stop." Sometimes they didn't.

Van Persie played street football, part of the sporting culture in Holland, from "five to about 17". Even when he was on the brink of the Feyenoord first team, he played. Even now he is on the brink of the Arsenal team he dreams of playing. "It's not easy," he says with a smile, "but maybe on vacation."

It's hard to let go because it was street football that fashioned this sculptor's son. "My left foot is because of the street," says the 21-year-old. "In the beginning it was poor. When I was eight, nine, 10. It was nothing. I didn't realise that it was good for me. But I like the game so I shot and shot and shot. Goal after goal." Marco van Basten, the Dutch coach, has commented on Van Persie's "great left foot", while Johan Cruyff placed him above Arjen Robben in terms of talent.

Van Persie learned something else on the streets: mental strength. "There were lots of better players than me," he says. "They were fantastic with the ball, with fantastic tricks. I know a lot of guys who were brilliant but not strong enough in the mind. When I go back to Holland, they say, 'I should have taken my chance. You took it and I'm proud of you'. And I say, 'You were 10 times better than me but you messed up'. If you want to make it in football you have to take your chances and be patient." So when his friends went out partying, he didn't.

It is a lesson he has held close since signing for Arsenal last May for £2.75m. "Everything was new; the money was new, the language was new," says Van Persie. And his wife, Bouchra, an economics student, was also new. The couple had only been married for two months before moving to England. "It's a different city, different country, different life. Friends and family come over, but only for a few days."

There was, not unnaturally, a period of adjustment that ended only last week when the Van Persies moved from a rented flat in Hampstead, north London, to their own home in Enfield. It's closer to the Arsenal training ground but also to team-mates such as Edu, Gaël Clichy and Jérémie Aliadière.

Last night, Van Persie was due to have dinner with another team-mate, Cesc Fabregas. "He's Spanish, I'm Dutch and it's a good thing," he says. "He's from another culture but that doesn't matter. It's one big family here and I believe everyone likes each other." No doubt yesterday's volatile Premiership match at Southampton, in which Van Persie was sent off, was the main topic of conversation.

The Arsenal "family" is headed by Patrick Vieira. "He's a real captain for us," says Van Persie, who laughs when he is reminded of the furore over Arsenal fielding a non-English XI. "I only realised that afterwards," he says. "But at a club like Arsenal it's just about getting the best players. That's what big clubs do. It's nothing to do with nationality."

It's what attracted him - he turned down offers from PSV Eindhoven and Seville after deciding to quit Feyenoord "for various reasons". Chief among those was his falling-out with the then coach, Bert van Marwijk, a strict disciplinarian who, at times, thought Van Persie, the darling of De Kuip since his debut at 17, needed taking down a peg or two. Eventually Van Persie was thrown into the reserves and his name blackened. It was hard to take.

"People were writing things about me that weren't true. I thought maybe I should try and make them love me, but after a few months I thought, 'Stop it, Robin. You are who you are'. People who know me know what I'm like, and that is what matters. But it was hard to take."

It was "a dream" when Arsenal called, even if his first training session was a shock. "I felt the difference straight away," Van Persie says. "I played 10 minutes each way and I was broken. I said to myself, 'I have to improve. I'm not strong enough'. I practised unbelievably hard. I was training, going home, having dinner and sleeping. And the next day the same." Van Persie's mind flitted back again to those street games. "I always played against older people. If I was 12, I played against guys who were 16. And that's a big difference. You have to be smarter than your opponent as well."

After two months with the big boys of Arsenal, "the boss thought I was ready". However, Arsène Wenger had also explained that Van Persie needed to remain patient. "He said young players have to adapt. It's better to play a few games than just one," the player says of his stop-start career so far. "But I knew that could happen. This is high-level, so you have to prepare for it. Here I know I'm a good player and I believe in myself, but here also there are players with more experience, fantastic players, better players."

Chief among those is, of course, his countryman Dennis Bergkamp. "I love to watch him," says Van Persie. "He's fantastic but he also plays for the team. And that's a great combination." Such is Bergkamp's form that, aged 35, there may be another year's contract. It could mean that Van Persie has to be even more patient. "He has to fight for his place and I have to also," he says. "I have great respect for him. He's been good to me and I think this season he's the one I've learned most from. In every training session he's unbelievable - with his touch and his mind. He's some player."

Bergkamp's three-match suspension - and that of Jose Antonio Reyes - after the incident against Sheffield United had given Van Persie his big chance, until he spurned it with yesterday's dismissal. Now Van Persie himself will be suspended. Like Bergkamp, he has that competitive edge, as his brush with Manchester United's Kieron Richardson in the Carling Cup showed. Maybe that, too, comes from the streets. "I always said I would wait," Van Persie says of his opportunity. Now the waiting must go on.

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