The brawn and the brains of the divisive Mark van Bommel

The brawn and the brains of the divisive Mark van Bommel

Now a 33-year-old winding down his career with Al Ahli, in 2010 Nigel de Jong was responsible for a moment that is as memorable as any associated with the World Cup final. As Xabi Alonso heads the ball away in central midfield, de Jong comes flying in with his leg up and plants his studs into the Spaniard’s chest. Bewilderingly escaping a red card, it is a challenge that his watching midfield partner, Mark van Bommel, would be proud of.

The curly-haired midfielder had been the centre of attention in South Africa, for all the wrong reasons, from the quarter-final with Brazil. In that match he elbowed Luís Fabiano, stamped on Lúcio’s foot and fouled Dani Alves with a notably strong tackle. In response to this, the Barcelona right-back berated the Japanese referee, counting the number of times Van Bommel had committed a foul but escaped punishment.

Such media scrutiny only intensified following the semi-final with Uruguay. A match best remembered for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s wondergoal early in the first half, Van Bommel’s role in creating this cannot be overlooked. With a cross-field pass from Dirk Kuyt heading his way, Van Bommel served to ruthlessly straight-arm Walter Gargano, flooring the Uruguayan just seconds before Van Bronckhorst let fly.

Throughout the contest, Van Bommel continued to throw himself about. A studs-up tackle on Álvaro Pereira, stamp on Edinson Cavani, and a two-footed lunge on Sebastián Fernández were all worthy of at least bookings, but once again, Van Bommel was not penalised. Then there was an unrelenting shoulder charge into Fernández, where in the aftermath Van Bommel kicked out at the Uruguayan. Again this went unpunished, and when a yellow card finally did come his way, it was for kicking the ball away in the dying seconds.

Alongside public bewilderment at how he kept escaping punishment, Van Bommel went into the final with a focus on the role he would play. Prior to the match, he stated how the Dutch were “ready for a big battle” and prepared to “break” the Spanish. He stayed true to his word, with crunching challenges on Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Xavi in the Netherlands’ ultimately futile attempt to capture a first world title.

Throughout the tournament, the spotlight had loomed collectively on the cynical play of the Dutch, which was scathingly dismissed by Johan Cruyff as “vulgar anti-football”. Van Bommel was a central target to this attack, criticised by the proverbial son over the strength of his tackling and picked out for being deserving of a red card in the final, a game in which he yet again escaped any form of punishment.

A central reason for this lack of cautions was Van Bommel’s streetwise style with referees. The frequency with which he was able to get away with seemingly reckless challenges makes this more than sheer coincidence. Van Bommel would spend most of the game in the referee’s ear, asking for cautions for challenges and decision-making consistency. Rarely would this result in anything, but the notion of consistency afforded Van Bommel more leniency from officials.

His presence on the pitch and control over officials has been frequently described as Machiavellian, and speaking on the matter himself, Van Bommel commented back in 2010: “Obviously I have a bay boy reputation, but all I’m doing is playing at the limit.”

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It is here that the quagmire of Mark van Bommel exists. To many, he was simply a nasty piece of work, a one-dimensional proponent of hard-hitting, mindless challenges that no longer have a place in the modern game. There is, however, another far more positive side to Van Bommel that is underexplored.

It’s easy to forget the talent Van Bommel possessed, which was such that he made his professional debut in 1993 for Fortuna Sittard at the age of just 16 years and 23 days. Unfortunately, Fortuna were relegated at the end of that season, although if anything this was to the benefit of Van Bommel. Two seasons in the Eerste Divisie brought valuable first team experience, with the 18-year-old scoring seven times as Fortuna won the title in 1995.

Upon their return to the Eredivisie, Van Bommel gained admirers for his domineering performances in central midfield. Following his first full season in the top flight, he was called up to the Dutch under-21 squad, and the next two seasons saw Van Bommel continue to impress.

He displayed his versatility by filling in at centre-back, while also demonstrating signs of his leadership qualities, with the youngster pivotal in taking Fortuna to the KNVB Beker final against Ajax. In the semi-final against PSV, Van Bommel shone, assisting Ronald Hamming for the equaliser and controlling the tempo of the match. Unfortunately, a debatable yellow card led to him missing the final, with his absence felt as Ajax won 2-0.

By this stage, however, Van Bommel had far outgrown the small southern city of Sittard. Still enamoured by his masterful performance in the semi-final, PSV decided to pay £2.5m to bring the midfielder to the Philips Stadion in the summer of 1999. Playing in partnership with fellow summer signing Johann Vogel, the pair were crucial as PSV ran away with the title.

A dream debut saw Van Bommel both score and assist in a 4-1 opening day victory over MVV Maastricht, with PSV winning five of their opening nine games by a margin of at least five goals. Central to this success were the goals of Ruud van Nistelrooy, although Van Bommel chipped in with six strikes in his debut season, including the opener in a 4-0 win over Ajax.

The following season saw Van Bommel tasked with even greater responsibility, appointed club captain in the face of Luc Nilis’ departure to Aston Villa. He also earned his first call-up to the senior national team, debuting in October 2000 as a substitute against Cyprus. During this campaign he garnered more of an international reputation, scoring in both Champions League group matches against Manchester United alongside a thunderous 35-yard strike in an August 2001 friendly against England.

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PSV retained their title by finishing 17 points ahead of second-placed Feyenoord, with Van Bommel duly voted the league’s best player. It appeared the Netherlands had produced another top-class footballer, however this time there was a difference. For a nation long associated with the majesty of Totaalvoetbal, the style of Van Bommel could be seen as the antichrist of Cruyff’s free-flowing dream. The reality is that it’s wrong to claim he was a pagan entity, with Van Bommel’s remarkable tactical awareness and ability to read the game characteristically Dutch.

It is also untrue that Van Bommel was a player bereft of any technical skill. Whilst utilised for most of his career as a holding midfielder, he possessed a passing range that was up there with the very best. Furthermore, he scored at least six goals in each of his six campaigns at the Philips Stadion. His highest tally came during 2004/05, with an impressive 17 strikes as Van Bommel won his fourth Eredivisie title and helped PSV reach the Champions League semi-finals.

Over the two legs against AC Milan, the Dutch side were arguably the better team, with Van Bommel’s performances leading to him being crowned Dutch Footballer of the Year once again. He also received a place in the ESM Team of the Season, and that summer, at the age of 27, finally left his homeland.

Barcelona was the destination, with the opportunity to link up with compatriot Frank Rijkaard and national teammate Giovanni van Bronckhorst key to his decision.

Arriving on a free transfer, during his unveiling he surprised journalists by answering questions in perfect Spanish, having dedicated the whole summer to learning the language. On the pitch, he helped Barcelona win both LaLiga and the Champions League, with the Dutchman playing in both legs of the quarter and semi-finals of the victorious European campaign, alongside an hour of the final in Paris.

It is arguably during his solitary season at the Camp Nou where the negative image of Van Bommel was formed. With the likes of Deco, Ronaldinho and Xavi providing the spark going forward, Van Bommel found himself deployed in a defensive role, tasked with the sole responsibility of breaking up play and feeding his more illustrious teammates.

Regardless of his job, Van Bommel still recorded seven assists in 24 LaLiga games, a feat that becomes all the more commendable when you consider he only completed a third of those matches. Finding himself competing with Edmílson, Rafael Márquez and Thiago Motta for the deep position in Rijkaard’s midfield, however, the Dutchman decided to leave following the conclusion of the 2006 World Cup in search of more regular game time.

He made his long overdue finals bow that summer following the failure of the Dutch to qualify four years earlier. Again, Van Bommel had to fight for his place, with the player enduring a toxic relationship with coach Marco van Basten. Following an unusually poor defensive display in a qualifier with Romania in June 2005, Van Basten decided to drop him from the national setup. This meant he failed to appear for Oranje in almost a year, with only the midfielder’s fine end of season form at Barcelona earning him a place in the squad.

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The Netherlands didn’t have an overly impressive World Cup, advancing as runners-up to Argentina in Group C prior to losing to Portugal in the so-called Battle of Nuremberg. The round of 16 loss saw four players sent off and a further eight, including Van Bommel, cautioned.

After the tournament, Van Basten publicly slated his midfield star, stating how he possessed a poor attitude, alongside the more bizarre claims he lacked defensive nous and was incapable of playing in a three-man midfield. This led to Van Basten dropping Van Bommel from the squad for the friendly with the Republic of Ireland in August 2006.

In response the midfielder had his say, openly lambasting the decision to cast aside senior players such as Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert and stating how in his eyes the coach gave certain squad members preferential treatment. More importantly, Van Bommel said he would not play for his country again so long as Van Basten remained coach.

The Dutchman stayed true to his word, with his international hiatus persisting until Van Basten tendered his resignation after the Netherlands were overrun in the Euro 2008 quarter-final loss to Russia. Following the appointment of his former Fortuna coach and father-in-law Bert van Marwijk, Van Bommel declared himself available for Oranje duty again. He impressed on his return in a friendly with Russia, adding much-needed steel to demonstrate what they’d been missing at that summer’s tournament.

After leaving Barcelona to join Bayern Munich, his spell in Germany was similarly tumultuous, starting off on a sour note as Die Roten endured their worst season in 12 years to finish fourth in the Bundesliga. The following campaign was more successful, however, with a league and cup double secured prior to the retirement of club icon Oliver Kahn in the summer of 2008. New manager Jürgen Klinsmann was in no doubt who he wanted to succeed the fearsome blonde-haired stopper, appointing Van Bommel to the role without hesitation.

His charisma and leadership were well respected throughout his time in Bavaria, with Miroslav Klose commenting how Van Bommel helped him settle after his 2007 move from Werder Bremen. Unsurprisngly, there were sour incidents, such as a scuffle with Stuttgart’s Fernando Meira in 2007 that ended in Van Bommel grabbing the genitals of the Portuguese, or an elbow on Lionel Messi in the 2009 Champions League semi-final loss to Barcelona.

In his two-and-half-years with the armband, Van Bommel did, however, became Bayern’s first foreign captain to lift silverware, securing another Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double in 2009/10. Under the tutelage of his former national team manager Louis van Gaal, Van Bommel steered Bayern to the 2010 Champions League final, although lost 2-0 to Internazionale in the Madrid showpiece.

While the passage of Bayern to this stage of the competition was unsurprising, the Netherlands’ time in South Africa was anything but. It was a shock how a team with an ageing squad and weak defence had made it all the way to the final. For all the flair of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder came the grounding presence of Van Bommel, who was arguably the team’s most important player.

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Following defeat in Johannesburg, Van Bommel returned to Bayern under markedly different circumstances. By now he was 33 and becoming increasingly at odds with Van Gaal. As club captain, he felt responsible to stand up to Van Gaal and defend his teammates in the face of the coach’s famously abstract criticism.

Following a particularly heated discussion in December 2010, the following month saw Van Gaal sign Hoffenheim’s defensive midfielder Luiz Gustavo whilst also stripping Van Bommel of the captaincy. In response, Van Bommel asked to be freed from his contract six months early in order to find a new club, with his agent Mino Raiola utilising his connections to secure a deal with AC Milan.

Sent off on his Serie A debut against Catania, he would bounce back to offer Max Allegri a much-needed midfield option in the midst of an injury crisis. Van Bommel’s arrival was largely credited as the steadying influence that brought Milan what is to date their most recent Scudetto. His form was such that the club offered him a year-long extension, although Juventus pipped the Rossoneri to the title in 2011/12. Van Bommel was offered another one-year deal, however politely declined in order to poetically return home to PSV.

Sandwiched between this final move was his debut at a European Championship at the age of 34. Alongside the well-documented 2008 issue, Van Bommel also missed the tournament in 2004 after injuring his Achilles tendon. Serving as captain, a role he wasn’t keen on fulfilling, the Netherlands lost all three games to exit at the group stage. Immediately after this, he announced his retirement from Oranje duty, stepping aside for the next generation.

Reinstated as captain back in Eindhoven, he was unable to live up to his pre-season promise of returning home to win titles, the pre-season Johann Cruijff Schaal aside. PSV lost in the KNVB Beker final to AZ while also ending as runners-up in the league to Ajax. After the season had finished, he criticised his teammates for failing to capture the title, labelling results such as a 3-1 home loss to Zwolle “unacceptable”.

He was sent off in his final match, a 3-1 loss at Twente, after a strong studs-up challenge of Dušan Tadić. Many would call this a fitting farewell, but in truth that is only one side of Van Bommel. It is perhaps only in Eindhoven where he is truly appreciated, something seen in his final home match for PSV. Welcomed onto the pitch to a tifo reading ‘King of Philips’, Van Bommel was left in tears after the final whistle as a capacity crowd remained behind to give their man a standing ovation.

Completing his love-affair with PSV, Van Bommel has returned as manager following his role as assistant to Bert van Marwijk during Australia’s fruitless campaign in Russia. Unsurprisingly, he’s been welcomed with open arms by the club’s fans.

To most, Mark van Bommel’s name will forever be synonymous with little more than an uncompromising player who it would be best to forget – but this is not how he is viewed at PSV. In Eindhoven, he’s regarded as one of the club’s best players this century, a midfield colossus who led by example. A look at his honours list and longevity means perhaps some of the wider footballing community should reconsider too that, for all the gamesmanship and hard tackles, ultimately he was a very good footballer.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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