Something inside me is broken," said Patrick Kluivert, the brilliant young Ajax striker, after the fatal car crash which has overshadowed his season for club and country. "I can never be fully happy again. The child in me has been killed."
Contrary to that remark, Kluivert will today attempt to prove, against Scotland at Villa Park, that he can indeed repair the damage done to his spirit following that awful tragedy, providing he can first overcome the physical injury which has also blighted the latter stages of his season.
Nevertheless, there has been plenty of proof that he still possesses a rare ability, most memorably, perhaps, in that stunning demonstration of the goalscorer's art, against the Republic of Ireland in the European Championship play-off at Anfield last December.
It was in last season's European Cup final, against Milan, that he really came to the fore, scoring a late winner. Overnight, the handsome, sweet- natured 18-year-old who sobbed like Gazza at the final whistle and later hugged his mum on the tarmac at Schiphol airport became the darling of Dutch football.
Just four months later, his world had collapsed when he caused a fatal car crash. This season he has suffered depression, death threats from racists, taunting by rival fans and intense media pressure. Last month he was sentenced to 240 hours of community service for causing death by dangerous driving.
Surprisingly, despite the tragedy, Kluivert, a product of the Ajax youth system, has continued to develop as one of the most exciting footballers in Europe. Fast, powerful and elegant, he played superbly in the Dutch League, in which he was the club's top scorer for the second year, and dazzled in the Champions' League, especially against Real Madrid, Ferencvaros and Borussia Dortmund.
Kluivert made little impact as the Dutch struggled in the early phase of their Euro 96 campaign and lost to Belarus and the Czech Republic. But against the Irish, he secured the Netherlands' place in the finals with two precisely struck goals, hit the bar with a thumping header and won rave reviews for his intelligent running and perceptive passing.
In April, he injured his knee and was not fully fit when he returned to play in Ajax's European Cup final defeat by Juventus last month. Nevertheless, like his Ajax counterpart, Louis van Gaal, the national team's coach, Guus Hiddink, sees Kluivert as a vital player.
His club and country have supported Kluivert during his personal crisis, but no-one can predict the long-term effects of the car crash.
"Something inside me is broken," Kluivert told Voetbal International magazine. "I can never be fully happy again. Before the accident, I was sometimes reckless, but that is normal for my age. Now, in one moment, it is gone. The child in me has been killed. Only when I am on the field can I be myself [and] feel completely free."
Kluivert unwittingly played his first reserve game after the accident on the day of the funeral. When he returned for Ajax's match at NAC Breda, rival fans taunted him as a "murderer".
Kluivent scored the winning goal but became deeply depressed. "I didn't dare go out," he said. "I was afraid of people, that they would shout at me, even of the way they looked at me... everything is completely different from before. All the time, images of the accident come back to me. If I'm in a good mood, I think: this man can't do any of this anymore, so I can't be happy."
The man who died was Marten Putman, 56, father of two, director of the Stadschouwburg theatre in Vlaardingen and, coincidentally, a life-long Ajax fan. On 9 September he left his in-laws' house in north Amsterdam after a dinner. When he swung his Ford Orion into a U-turn, the red BMW Cabriolet Kluivert was driving slammed into Putman's door, killing him instantly.
Kluivert had not been drinking, so the case against him turned on the question of speed, which the judge ruled was 89.2 kilometres per hour (about 55 mph) where the limit was about 35 mph.
"The car came so fast, we never saw it. I'm so glad my husband didn't have pain or fear," says Putman's wife Hanny, who was also injured in the crash. "Kluivert sent us a letter afterwards, but it was such a little letter, like his teacher dictated it. Perhaps it is because he is only 19, but I think his behaviour was not very characterful. He has ruined my life, but it is very important for me he was found guilty. It was a soft sentence, but that was normal for the Netherlands. The judge was correct."
"Everyone in my family was always enthusiastic about Ajax. My husband, my father. When I was young, I liked them too. My son used to go to games with his grandfather. Now he still watches, but only on video, so, if he sees Kluivert, he can use the fast forward button, so he doesn't have to see him any more."
Altan Erdogan, who covered the case for Het Parool, says: "People who don't like football say Kluivert was drunk on fame and success. They think he drove like a madman and should be punished as severely as possible. Ajax fans think he's been punished enough. They tend to forget what really happened."
Indeed, many people in the game have considerable sympathy for Kluivert, and hope he can put the tragedy behind him and continue his career. When his Ajax contract expires next year he will probably join his friend, Edgar Davids, at Milan.
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