Did You Know?: Rafael first joined Ajax at the age of just 10, after impressing academy coaches during an ‘open day’ for talented youngsters.
Rafael Ferdinand van der Vaart was born 11 February 1983 in Heemskerk. He started playing for De Kennemers, a small club in the town of Beverwijk, before moving to the Ajax youth academy. After racing through the ranks, he played his first game for the senior team on 19 April 2000, away at FC Den Bosch, but it was only the following season that he established himself as a regular starter, playing 27 league games and scoring seven times.
Still just 18, on 6 October 2001 he made his national team debut, as a second-half substitute in a World Cup qualifier against Andorra. As Holland had already failed to reach the World Cup, Rafael had to wait two years to play an official tournament for his country.
Talent of the Year
Injury forced him to miss the run-in to Ajax’s successful Eredivisie campaign and their Dutch Cup triumph against FC Utrecht in the 2001/02 season, but it did not stop him being named Holland’s Talent of the Year. And the following season, after his return to fitness, he scored a vital goal in the Champions League away to Lyon, which propelled Ajax into the knockout stages. Back on the domestic front, meanwhile, Rafael scored an impressive 18 goals in 21 league games in the Eredivisie. In 2003/04, he was once again an influential figure, as Ajax claimed another league title.
By that stage Rafael had firmly established himself as one of the stars of the Ajax team, not to mention one of the most popular players in Holland. His media profile was further increased by his relationship with popular Dutch actress Sylvie Meis. While Rafael was crowned as 2003 European Talent of the Year, Sylvie was voted as Holland’s Most Attractive Woman. In 2005, the couple married and the following year had their first child, a son who they named Damián.
Signed Hamburg SV
By now his performances were attracting interest from some of Europe’s top clubs. He had previously been strongly linked to AC Milan, but in the summer of 2005 he signed for Bundesliga outfit Hamburg SV. In his first season he was one of the main driving forces behind the team’s qualification for the Champions League, scoring nine goals along the way, despite missing part of the season through injury.
He also played a massive part in Hamburg’s impressive away form that season, scoring in each of their first four games on the road; in fact, in the course of his first one and a half seasons with the German club, they did not lose a single match away from home while he was on the pitch.
2006 World Cup
Rafael was expected to play an important part in Marco van Basten’s team for the 2006 World Cup, but was unlucky enough to suffer another injury during the run-up to the tournament, which restricted his role in Germany.
The 2006/07 season proved to be a difficult one for his club, and despite Rafael’s three goals in the Champions League group stages, they made an early exit from the competition, while languishing for several months in the bottom half of the Bundesliga table. However, the arrival of Rafael’s countryman Huub Stevens as head coach saw Hamburg march up the standings and they finished the season in a respectable 7th place, qualifying for, and indeed winning, the Intertoto Cup.
Dream move to Real Madrid
In the summer of 2007, Spanish giants Valencia expressed a desire to sign Rafael, who actually has some Spanish roots. However the Germans were desperate to keep hold of their playmaker, who is under contract at the AOL Arena until 2010, and he stayed put. He responded in the first game of the 2007/08 season by putting in a big performance against Bayer Leverkusen; when his team were awarded a penalty, he stepped up to the plate and coolly slotted home the winner. Rafael went on to play a key part in driving a galvanised Hamburg side that mounted a strong challenge for Bundesliga title.
At Euro 2008, Rafael was one of Holland’s star performers in scintillating wins against both of the 2006 World Cup finalists, Italy and France. After speculation linking him to a number of top clubs during the following month, he finally completed what he described as “a dream move” to Real Madrid in August 2008.