The Poetry Room at the Oxford Union is the sort of place that gives rise to the most clichéd of questions, predictably asked by the Daily Mail journalist in attendance: ‘As a young boy growing up in the Netherlands…did you ever imagine that one day…you might be in this room’ ad nauseam. One questions if any young Dutch man has ever imagined himself being in the poetry room of the Oxford Union, but it gives rise to an obvious point: van der Sar has been around for an outrageously long time, with his recent appointment as Ajax’s marketing director allowing his career, which began as a youth goalkeeper at the same club, to come full circle.
Indeed, maybe there’s no better placed player to comment on English football from a European perspective than van der Sar: find me another player who has shared a dressing room with both Marc Overmars and Collins John, a man who holds a cherished place in the upper echelon of football chants (‘he’s big, he’s fast, his first name should come last’). For an interview that lasts 15 minutes, under the watchful eye of a Dutch media guru, an extraordinary breadth of topics is covered, somewhat down to the fact he exemplifies that annoying continental trend of speaking better English than most of the national team.
Surprisingly, the main topic of discussion arising from van der Sar’s interview has been whether Wayne Rooney should take up yoga, mainly arising from that journalistic cesspit that is givemesport.com et al (You’ll never believe what this Chelsea player said about this teammate!). But this sort of sidebar-of-shame fodder belies Van der Sar’s genuinely nuanced analysis about the state of modern football; he also said that he could never imagine doing said yoga, in case anyone was interested. He points out that the rise of Chinese football is simply a hyper-globalised version of what existed previously – from a player whose career has spanned the epoch of Frank de Boer playing for a relative penance to Raheem Sterling being payed six figures a week, money will always be a fundamental motivating factor for players. Van der Sar notes that in his capacity as marketing director he liaises with three Chinese companies over Ajax sponsorship, but whilst this Far East involvement is new, the general principle is the same – money is the axis which the modern football world spins around.
On the subject of the globalised game, what for the prospects of a European Super League? Van der Sar is noticeably coy on the matter, but assures us that there is a place for Ajax in this league, a questionable assertion for a club that came 2nd in the Eredivisie last year, to a PSV team featuring Luuk de Jong as their captain (actually even worse than his brother) . Most conversation however, perhaps understandably, is Manchester United-based, with van der Sar having just before described the irreparably doomed Louis van Gaal as ‘the best coach he’d ever played under.’
Is it possible then, to reconcile his emotional attachments to both van Gaal and United? Van der Sar points out that the same trust in youth that saw van Gaal give him his first appearance is still the focus of the manager’s mentality: the emergence of Marcus Rashford (accompanied by the obligatory ‘get him on the plane!’ tweets) is evidence of this. Does, therefore, Van der Sar see some of himself in Rashford? Aside from the difficulties of comparing a Dutch goalkeeper and an English striker, which appear to not have been apparent to that particular journalist, there is a broader implied point to what van der Sar says – perhaps once removed from the constraints of the all-pervasive short-termism in football, van Gaal’s reign will be vindicated in the long run. For all of van der Sar’s clearly genuine loyalty to van Gaal and understandable reticence to try and predict the future, not even he denies the prospect of the Mourinho travelling circus making the journey up the M1 this summer.
On domestic matters, Van der Sar’s ability to contrast the Dutch and English coaching systems allows us to look at the general malaise within English football – after all, there’s nothing an English football fan loves more than looking at the general malaise within English football. Coming back to Rooney, he notes the tendency for players to be rushed back from injury at times of club or national crisis, leading to the proverbial ‘burn-out’ where a player simply cannot sustain his level of performance, yoga or no yoga. But as he notes in conclusion, he himself is an exemplification of the constantly expanding avenues for a former professional to explore: coaching is no longer the sole career path for retired professionals – punditry, business, or one could even follow the route of former CSKA star Vagner Love, and release commercially available adult movies. Maybe he too will one day find himself in the Poetry Room of the Oxford Union.