Rafael van der Vaart is fast making a name for himself at White Hart Lane. Having been pulled from the Real Madrid scrapheap in late August, the Dutch playmaker has established himself as a key player at Tottenham, and is vital to Harry Redknapp’s push to compete on two fronts. Scoring in every home game he has started since his arrival, van der Vaart has endeared himself to the White Hart Lane faithful and has begun to draw comparisons with a fellow Dutchman, and one time north London resident, that plied his trade in the area not so many years ago.
Comparisons with Dennis Bergkamp may seem fairly unimaginative, obvious and perhaps even trite, seeing as they are both Dutch, both operate as second strikers and both play, or have played, for teams in north London. But the similarities don’t cease there. Both, having begun their footballing lives at Ajax’s famed youth academy, found themselves approaching 30 and stuck in the purgatory of being out of favour with the European giants they played for. Both, then, decided to move to north London, to sides burgeoning towards great success, what happened to one, and the club he represented, is history, what happened to the other, is history in the making.
Dennis Bergkamp was signed for Arsenal, from Inter Milan, in June 1995 by Bruce Rioch for £7.5m, £4.5m less than Inter Milan had signed him for just 2 years previously. With both club and player eager to prove themselves after periods of respective malaise, Bergkamp did not disappoint. When Arsene Wenger took the reins at the club in September 1996, Bergkamp came into his own, helping Arsenal to 3 league titles and 4 FA Cups before his retirement in 2006.
Rafael van der Vaart’s comparison to Bergkamp comes from the mouth of another Dutch legend, Ronald Koeman who noted;
‘Some people might say he reminds them of Eric Cantona, but Cantona was more of a striker. He is more of a Dennis Bergkamp-type player, sitting between the midfield and the defence.’
High praise from a national hero, but while van der Vaart’s playing style can be compared to Bergkamp, the 27 year-old has a long way to go to emulate his success in north London. Bergkamp formed formidable strike partnerships with both Ian Wright and Thierry Henry at Highbury, transforming the Gunners from ‘boring boring Arsenal’ into free scoring title contenders and was an integral part of ‘the Invincibles’. If van der Vaart is to become the new Dennis Bergkamp, he must attempt to form these types of strike partnerships with his new colleagues at White Hart Lane. He and Peter Crouch seem to have developed an immediate understanding, but the real test will come with the return to fitness of Tottenham’s principal striker, Jermain Defoe. If van der Vaart can click with Defoe then Spurs will be a force to be reckoned with going forward, if not, then all this talk of Bergkamp comparisons will quickly dissipate.
Having had a fruitful honeymoon at Spurs and in possession of undoubted talent, Rafael van der Vaart may well become a future Spurs legend, but to make the leap from cult hero to legend, the Dutch international will have to steer Tottenham to silverware and a period of sustained success, like Bergkamp did for Arsenal. Then perhaps, like Bergkamp, when Spurs finally move to their new home, the first match will be a Rafael van der Vaart testimonial.