Footballers tend to decline as they move into their 30s, with dimming enthusiasm and an assortment of injuries tending to slowly draw the curtain on their careers. But goalkeepers are the anomaly to the rule; they age like fine wine, defying common logic, fighting back Father Time for as long as they can. The best ‘keepers decide when they go out on their own accord, rather than being forced by injuries.
Edwin van der Sar belongs to the hoi oligoi of keepers, a man in his own class, exceeding levels of brilliance when the world thought his powers had dimmed. He’s no fruit wine; he’s pure red, just like the colours of Ajax and Manchester United, where he remains a legend. He retired at the top, casting the denouement to a career that saw no major ebb, but rather the belying of expectations. From Ajax to Juventus, Fulham to Manchester United, this is the story of his career.
As with many things Ajax, the story starts with the influence of a certain Johan Cruyff, part-time footballer and philosopher, full-time genius. He visualised the concept of a 3-4-3 that would render the goalkeeper as just another outfield player, albeit with gloves. He re-shaped the general idea of a goalkeeper, with distribution rated as highly as any other facet of a ‘keeper’s game. He looked for a ‘keeper to complete his vision of Total Football.
Stanley Menzo was Cruyff’s first such shot-stopper – a player who Cruyff insisted was his most important player in the 1987 Cup Winners’ Cup victory. Menzo read the game well and could pass the ball with ease, making him a partial outfielder, a flying goalkeeper. But he was just a pilot study into the concept of a sweeper-keeper, and an error in the 1992 UEFA Cup final led to Van der Sar replacing him in the side. Menzo was merely a decoy – Van der Sar was the solution to Cruyff’s dilemma.
Cruyff left a long-standing legacy at Ajax, but the role of the keeper in his oft-spoken system has rarely been focused upon, for it was those specific ideals that led to the rise of the gangly boy from Voorhout. Hailing from a village in the Dutch fields, Van der Sar was a late bloomer, joining his hometown club Foreholte at the age of 10, spending 1980 to 1985 there before moving to VV Noordwijk, where he spent another five years until he turned 20.
A twist of fate benefitted him there. Ruud Bröring, coach of the youth team, played cards regularly with the assistant coach of Ajax, Louis van Gaal. When Van Gaal mentioned he needed a goalkeeper, Bröring offered Van der Sar, whose interest was immediately piqued.
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But even though he never dreamed of turning pro, you don’t reject Ajax when they come calling, resulting in a huge step-up for the inexperienced ‘keeper. There may not have been a better place for a footballer to hone their skills, even at that time. It was Leo Beenhakker who granted Van der Sar his first-team debut, giving him a run of nine games towards the back-end of the 1990/91 season ahead of the injured Menzo.
The 20-year-old had the gait of a gymnast, a misfit in the penalty box. Conceding just three goals, though one in a loss to 16th-placed SVV that eventually cost Ajax the title to PSV, Van der Sar acquitted himself well enough against improved opposition. It was the arrival of Van Gaal, though, that propelled his career forward, while Frans Hoek, adroit as a goalkeeping coach even back then, helped to shape Van der Sar’s game in a way most suited to the Cruyffian method.
It is no surprise that Van der Sar reached a high proficiency in distributing from the back given his origins as a player. He started off as a defender, a position in which his height would have no doubt served him well, but it is that slender frame that had his fate written down as a goalkeeper. He once recounted the modest tale of his footballing positional change: “One day the goalkeeper wasn’t there and the coach said, ‘You’re the tallest, you go in goal’. That happens with a lot of goalkeepers.”
It’s a sign that his destiny was between the sticks. His development in the Ajax system took time, but given he found no game-time in the 1991/92 season, it was time well spent honing his skills with Hoek on the training ground.
His initial development saw him work on his general shortcomings through two training sessions a day, but it was the aspects relevant for an Ajax goalkeeper that are most significant. In an interview with Raymond Verheijen, he detailed this in a concise manner: “A lot of attention was paid to aspects that were of specific importance for an Ajax goalkeeper, especially being able to join in as an 11th field player, and restart plays in general.”
Hoek believed in retaining possession, instilling the idea of a purpose to playing the ball upfield, which was to find a teammate, to an extent that they frequently practised restart situations. It was the Ajax mentality that set Van der Sar apart – the ingraining of the importance of ball possession from the early stages of his development set him on his way to becoming a sweeper keeper. The Frans Hoek method of coaching is world-class in its conception but Van der Sar remains one of the first exponents of his technique.
Van der Sar was strong in the traditional aspects of goalkeeping: a presence in his box, strong in collecting crosses, while rarely relying on spectacular heroics, understandable given Hoek’s preference for his keepers staying on their feet unless necessary. It was Hoek, however, who gave him the keys towards spreading the art of a sweeper keeper.
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The introduction of the back pass rule made such a tactic more viable in its execution, but it still required a strong mindset and skillset to pull it off with proficiency. He was taught to organise his defence well enough to eliminate the necessity of making saves, but he demonstrated his competency in this area well enough on several occasions. He was “very complete”, in Cruyff’s words. That is why for all of the attacking brilliance in that side, it is essential to remember that it all started at the back, the engine to the Lamborghini, at the feet of van der Sar.
After being afforded a chance against Cambuur in October 1992, coming on for Menzo at half-time, he played the next four games, but it proved a false dawn as Menzo was back for the fifth game. The youngster wanted a move to Den Haag but was told to persist – and a 2-1 loss to PSV along with Menzo’s two errors against Auxerre was his big break.
Van der Sar was back for the trip to Volendam, and he never looked back. Playing in at least 40 games in each of the following seasons, Van der Sar had plenty of joy, even if he didn’t exhibit it through his expressions. The goalkeepers of yore were‘crazy, but this Dutchman was an anomaly, unflappable as a rock. Football provides cause for celebration and despair; while losing, he never displayed anger; but even while winning, he was his normal sedate self, rejecting the exhibition of over the top emotions.
Simon Kuper narrated a time when Van der Sar suffered a nightmare on the field by all standards during the loss to Ireland that knocked them out of the 2002 World Cup. A table seemed to have caught the wrath of his eye as he walked past it. But instead of ‘administering the coup de grâce’, he merely flicked off a plastic cup, the worst his anger would manifest itself into. Dexterity at its finest, emotional composure at its peak, the control that he learnt whilst at Ajax never abandoned him, even at his nadir.
Van der Sar won the lot at Ajax: four Eredivisie titles in five years, three KNVB Cups, an iconic Champions League and an assortment of others. But with time came the desire for change, and after nine years, the Ajax faithful could hardly deny him this move. His destiny was set to be passed over from Van Gaal to Sir Alex Ferguson in a similar manner to his effortless passes, but this pass was intercepted by an oncoming attacker draped with the colours of the Old Lady.
Ferguson had tried his best to sign Van der Sar when it was clear Peter Schmeichel was going to move on; contrasting styles, but the best suited to take over the role of the Dane. Only that the Scot was also interested in Villa’s Mark Bosnich, and by the time he received discouraging reports about him, club chairman Martin Edwards had signed on the dotted line.
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Van der Sar was to move to Turin, enticed by the Italian giants. Ferguson was said to have called the ‘keeper as he waited for his flight to Turin, but Van der Sar was a man of his word. One day late for the Scot, and many years of regret. The marriage with Ferguson was seemingly dead right before the vows were to be taken, and this turned out to have consequences beyond reckoning for both United and Van der Sar.
Despite 66 league appearances in his two seasons at Juventus, Turin never seemed like the right fit for his unique style. He was arguably the world’s best goalkeeper when he moved in 1999, which is why one would assume Juventus would adapt to him and not the other way round. But there was more to it.
In the Netherlands he was allowed to embrace risk, but calcio preferred to cut down risks, and that meant lesser balls played in defence. His role was restricted and his confidence dropped at a time when he was at his peak, when he should have been flourishing. He was promised Juventus would change their style, but this was reneged upon, especially under their stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti.
When Van Gaal came courting him from Barcelona, he decided to stay in Turin, but the critics who named ‘Van der Gol’ were not going to change. A blunder against Lazio saw Juventus let one title slip; one error amongst many such papere. Juventus asked him to get his eyesight checked, he consulted a therapist and lost his confidence to even catch the ball. When they splashed the cash on Gianluigi Buffon from Parma in 2001, there was no question as to what they thought of Van der Sar in Turin. “The man with butter on his hands” had to leave.
Upon leaving Italy, he finally set foot in England. In hindsight, he left Juventus at the right time given the Calciopoli scandal of later years, but Fulham was hardly the club of choice. It remains the anomaly amongst his four clubs – a real puzzler. Owner Mohamed al-Fayed promised to turn the club into the “Manchester United of southern England”, amusing as it sounds, but his stock had fallen by this point, and armed with a sizeable salary and a villa in Richmond, he made the move.
He spent four years there, but it was a frustrating time for Van der Sar, who knew he was at his peak. Van Gaal, now managing the Netherlands, had promised him clubs would come for him in 2002 after a great World Cup, but that loss to Ireland consigned those hopes to the bin. Craven Cottage remained his home for four years.
For all of Arsène Wenger’s brilliance, it still remains an enigma as to how he failed to see Van der Sar’s clear hints when at Fulham. He and his family loved living in London while he always played well against Arsenal. But both Wenger and Ferguson were oblivious and ignorant to the virtues of goalkeeping, and so ignored Van der Sar when he was at their doorstep, not willing to pay the requisite money. Ferguson eventually got his wish, signing him for under £4 million in 2005, six years after he should have sealed the deal.
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Ferguson was cursed with mediocre keepers since Van der Sar’s rejection, but it took him some time to give his phone a call again. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s positive affirmation regarding Van der Sar’s suitability was enough reason to sign him. Life rarely offers second chances, but Van der Sar has defied common logic so many times. This was his second coming, one widely different from his first at Ajax, but all the more iconic. This was a turbo boost to a fading career.
Three straight league titles, a potpourri of cups, various Team of the Season appearances, individual awards and records too – going 1,311 minutes without conceding will go down as one of the great records of the Premier League, unlikely to be bested – will be forever etched into his legacy at Old Trafford, but his true moment of glory was the 2008 Champions League final.
Van der Sar’s Achilles heel had always been penalties and he had lost a number of penalty shootouts in big knockout games through his career. For all of his emotional calm, he desired to be a hero too, and sought out Hans van Breukelen, his predecessor in the national side and a penalty king. When they met, Van der Sar realised the key to success was through researching opponents’ weaknesses rather than relying on luck, a practice that would tip the odds slightly in his favour.
This advice served him well in future shootouts, most of all the one in Moscow. The Chelsea players were told to shoot to Van der Sar’s left as he often dived right, but here they were facing a man of great wit. Playing with their minds, he pointed left when Nicolas Anelka ran in; the indecision led him to shoot right instead, right to a smiling Van der Sar, and there he exhibited rare joy, a punch to the air, besting all his demons. It remains his single most triumphant memory. He desired for a “van Breukelen moment”, and he got one in his own style.
When Jaap Visser decided to ghostwrite his autobiography, Van der Sar was concerned there would not be enough material to fill the pages. There was no scandal, glitz or anything else interesting. “I’m sorry, I’m just not very rock’n’roll,” he admitted once. He was the complete opposite of the maniacal Peter Schmeichel; he’s probably never attempted a somersault before, let alone in a Champions League final.
But Van der Sar never needed to be flamboyant. He marshalled his defence quietly and efficiently. When his wife Annemarie van Kesteren was severely ill, he took indefinite leave to be by her side. When amateur side VV Noordwijk needed a ‘keeper last year for a game, he returned to help out. Now Ajax’s chief executive, he’s quietly taking his old haunt to newer heights.
He’s a devoted family man, leaving any strength to football. He may intimidate opponents with a crushing pre-match handshake, a subtle don’t-mess-with-me signal, but he’s a genuinely good man off the field. He’s a true icon, one of a kind, a goalkeeper who shaped modern goalkeeping. Fans may wax lyrical about Manuel Neuer but Van der Sar was the modern original. You don’t need to be rock’n’roll if you’re already irreplaceable. That’s Edwin van der Sar: a humble man, a great player and an imperious legend in every sense
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_