Mark van Bommel: Divisive to the end
One of the Netherlands’ most accoladed footballers ever, one of the most controversial footballers of his generation. Mark van Bommel his retirement has been met with both cheers and tears. A good footballer and a true winner, one who would win a battle for your team, but also a vigilante, a thug, a player who was never shy of a needless tackle or a kicking out of frustration. In an attempt to create balance, we at Benefoot have decided to write two profiles rather than one. One to celebrate his ever winning mentality, one to discuss his career as a footballer. We will open with the latter, written by Michiel Jongsma, before Peter McVitie takes over to honour the winner that is Mark van Bommel.
Mark van Bommel: The footballer
(Written by Michiel Jongsma)
On the 21st of August in 2007, Mark van Bommel came out with a statement in an interview with TV Limburg. He wanted to change his nationality and play for the German team. It turned out to be a joke, but was taken up very seriously by Dutch media. Mainly because Mark van Bommel was embroiled with then-Dutch national manager Marco van Basten and because he had always felt he didn’t get the recognition he deserved in the Netherlands. It’s the story of a player who is recognized as a great winner, but has always been criticized for its style. And, in a country that has always preferred style over substance, that is not the way to go.
In all fairness, the Maasbracht-born midfielder brought it on himself a bit. After becoming one of the youngest ever debutants in the Eredivisie, making his first league appearance for Fortuna Sittard at the age of 16 years and 23 days, the young prodigy made strides onto the scene and quickly gained name and fame for his energetic and powerful midfield play. After seven seasons with the Limburg-club, he was transferred to PSV in 1999, where he quickly became one of the key figures. He became captain in his second season and became the epitome of what was probably the last great Eredivisie-side: efficient and complete, if unspectacular. The side built by Guus Hiddink won four league titles in six years and managed to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2004/2005. They lost to AC Milan on aggregate. After a 2-0 loss in the first leg, The PSV side were running AC Milan ragged and had repaired the damage through Ji Sung Park and Philip Cocu, it was Van Bommel of all people who left his man (Massimo Ambrosini) unmarked during a quick Milan break away. Ambrosini scored and Van Bommel was the fall guy.
He was never one loved by the Dutch public. Although he wasn’t the first midfielder in Dutch football history to be perceived as a hard man (Neeskens, Wouters, Davids), he was quite surely one of the more dirty and less styled players ever to grace the orange shirt. Even though his antics weren’t as terrible early on in his career as they were in the latter stages, he was never one for the purists.
There were doubts surrounding his ability. Hence why he remained at Fortuna for so long. Hence why he remained at PSV for so long. Six years at both clubs spell longevity, but, considering his ambition, also tell he wasn’t the convincing standout performer for his sides. While Fortuna were able to sell him for a decent fee in the end, PSV struggled to find suitors. A move to the Bundesliga was mooted at the start of the 04/05 season, but it never found form as both Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 weren’t sure of investing a hefty amount in a player such as Van Bommel. As mentioned earlier, Van Bommel was a complete football player, but hardly one with standout features.
In order to develop a characteristic style, to have a unique selling point if you will, he toughened up a bit. Until then, Mark van Bommel was a footballer who annoyed, but not in a manner in which he became known later. He was always a vengeful character, a hothead. In 1999, he got stitched up by Lothar Matthaüs in a clash between PSV and Bayern Münich. The maestro of foul means went down after Van Bommel patched him on the shoulder, the latter received his marching orders. The lesson learnt then is one he started to apply once he got away from the Netherlands. ‘It’s about winning, nothing else counts’. His signing off at PSV saw him score 14 league goals, an enormous amount for a central midfielder.
He went to Barcelona on a free in 2005 and immediately adapted the tough guy act he became renowned for. Rotating with highly polished midfielders such as Xavi, Deco, Iniesta and more solid, defensive ones as Edmilson and Thiago Motta, he was the real steel option in the squad. Whenever the circulation football of the Barcelona side was really flowing, Mark van Bommel was the one to struggle. He could not cope with the technical superiority of his team mates and became more and more a player relying on his tricks, toughness and mind games, letting go a bit of his footballing abilities in the process.
His year at Barcelona was hugely successful, as he won both La Liga and the Champions League, but he was shipped out nevertheless. Bayern Münich paid €6 million for him. They wanted a winner, they got a winner. The mentality that brought him success at Barcelona brought him success at Bayern Münich too. He was elected Bayern Player of the Season 06/07 in arguably his best season abroad. By this time though, he felt more recognition anyway for his newly acquired playing style.
As mentioned earlier, he was never one truly embraced by Dutch football and had a very unlucky affair with the Dutch national team. Rijkaard didn’t take him to the Euros in 2000. Van Bommel became an Oranje player in the years after, but was part of the infamous squad that failed to qualify for the World Cup of 2002. He wasn’t fit for the Euros of 2004 and was haunted out of the team by possibly the most football minded national manager the Netherlands have ever had, Marco van Basten. His joke of becoming a German was during the reign of the last one and it showed a sense of humour by Van Bommel, but also conveyed how he saw himself as a misunderstood world class player, one who had started to believe in his own greatness. He was the hard man, the leader, the winner on the field. He would show those around him he would do anything to win. Anything.
Just as the 2005 Van Bommel was an epitome of efficiency and completeness, the 2010 Van Bommel was an epitome of foul play and cheating, a knife-between-the-teeth kind of mentality. Together with Nigel de Jong, he was the heart of a side that didn’t shun the physical challenge and the final against Spain is likely to be remembered as one of the hardest World Cup Finals in modern football.
Mark van Bommel had become a machine, one who kicked out when things weren’t going his way. One who wouldn’t bother to jeopardize someone else’s health when push came to shove. Van Gaal sold Van Bommel to AC Milan in January 2011. He added more prizes to his cabinet. And he stood out. Mainly because of his hard play. ‘It’s about winning,’ he often argued when confronted. It was no longer a game anymore. In some cultures, his attitude would be praised. But in the end, it remains a game. The Dutch culture was never one who could embrace such an approach on football.
His last season, when he returned for PSV to ‘win things’, was one to forget for the ageing Van Bommel. The season began with him earning a yellow card in his first five consecutive league matches. It never got better. Outplayed by the younger talents in the league, losing the league title and the Dutch Cup final, a tired and old Van Bommel showed his true colours one last time against FC Twente in what turned out to be his last ever professional football game. While 3-1 down, a last show of the teeth of the old dog to seal the end of a turbulent areer. First, the midfielder kicks Luc Castaignos in the shin with the ball merely close to the couple, a first yellow is drawn. Fifteen minutes later, Dusan Tadic is thought a lesson. A stamp on the ankle of the Serb is the last act of Van Bommel as a professional footballer, as he gets a second yellow card and is sent off.
Getting into the dressing room he compares himself to Zinedine Zidane while talking to Belgian winger Dries Mertens. Disillusions of grandeur. They might have bowed out the same way, Zidane will be remembered as one of the most gracious footballers that have ever played. Mark van Bommel however will be thought of as one of The Netherlands’ most ‘un-Dutch’ footballers. One who started his career as a football player, but ended it as a thug wearing football shoes, permitting himself everything in order to win, without regard for others.
Mark van Bommel: The Winner
(Written by Peter McVitie)
A career which spanned 21 seasons and included 22 trophies, 807 official matches and 111 goals is one which deserves respect. Four Eredivisie titles, two Bundesliga championships, being crowned a champion in each of Spain and Italy are thoroughly impressive accolades. Factor in five domestic cup wins and eight domestic supercup victories and it becomes even more honourable. But there’s more. A Champions League winners’ medal, for one. And to top it all off, an appearance in a World Cup final.
The numbers, the trophies, the medals, the quality. It’s all very impressive. And it deserves, nay, demands, respect.
But these numbers are never mentioned when it comes to discussing the career of Mark van Bommel, and respect is not what the subject is treated with. When people discuss the Dutch midfielder, the yellow cards, red cards and dangerous tackles dominate the conversation. ‘He’s a dirty player’, is the general consensus (although ‘player’ is often exchanged for a more explicit term). His disciplinary record is, for sure, less than respectable. In fact, he almost willingly carved out and enhanced the profile he made for himself. Two yellow cards on his debut for AC Milan lead to an early bath and it seemed fitting upon his return to PSV this season that he received a booking in each of his first five matches in the league and had received a match ban fairly quickly as a result. Same old Van Bommel. This season, he finished joint top of the chart for most yellow cards in the Dutch top flight and his career came to an end on Sunday when he was sent off 20 minutes from time with a second booking for a stamp on Twente star Dusan Tadic. The only real surprise was that it was only his first red card of the season.
The comments rolled in on Twitter. A “fitting” farewell, it was stated on numerous occasions. He went out like Zidane. And that is the real misfortune here. Van Bommel, whose public image is one of a controversial and dirty player, retires amidst further shame and guffaws at his combative and physical playing style, regardless of the titles and achievements which decorate his CV.
All those league titles and cups, the fact he represented some magnificent and respectable clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and PSV, captaining his clubs and his country, making it to a World Cup final, the lifting of the Champions League trophy. All happily ignored. All wilfully forgotten.
Van Bommel, never the most elegant, skilful or technically gifted player, made a career out of a more pugnacious and aggressive style. For the purists, he was an easy figure to hate. But for those around him, he was an admirable leader.
Constantly bickering with referees and complaining isn’t something we should condone in football, but the reality is that it is a tactic many top level football players deploy on a regular basis, and Van Bommel used it to great effect throughout his career. Always trying to win something for his team and gain some sort of advantage, pointing out any inkling of injustice on the part of the officials in an attempt to alter their mindset for future decisions while motivating teammates. He was constantly arguing for the sake of his team, even if it would win him many a yellow card and occasional red.
Many opponents hated playing against him. When entering a challenge, he’d often leave his boot in for a bit longer than necessary, he was always muttering away in the ears of opposing players in an attempt to provoke them and get a reaction out of them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
“He may be irritating, he has his tricks, but it’s not dirty or anything and it’s only annoying if you lose,” Ajax’s Christian Eriksen
There was more to Van Bommel, however, much more. He was a talented midfielder with good passing ability and a thunderous shot which evaded more than a few hopeful hands of goalkeepers across all the leagues in which he performed. He played a crucial role in every league title he won, every trophy he collected and every tournament he guided his team through. Voted Dutch Player of the Year on two occasions, it is ridiculous to label him “anti-football”, as he was after Sunday’s match, or call into question his talent and ability.
As his speed left him, he began to play a deeper role. Very much a holding midfielder for Netherlands in their disastrous 2012 European Championship campaign, he had no engine left and it was perhaps a tournament too much for him, although he was required in the absence of a fit central midfielder.
He returned to PSV this season with the intention of winning the Eredivisie title for a fifth time and bringing an end to his career either this summer or the following. Six goals, three assists and three yellow card suspensions later, Van Bommel and PSV missed out on the league title, despite scoring 103 goals in the league. They had to settle for second and the disappointment was enhanced when they lost the KNVB Beker to AZ on Thursday. Three days later, Van Bommel received two yellow cards in the final match of the season and announced his retirement after the game.
There are no half-measures when it comes to Van Bommel and with a career covered in as much glory as it was controversy, it was always going to end in one such extreme. Unfortunately though, a season which looked so bright and promising has ended in sheer disappointment for PSV, while a career filled with so many accolades and great achievements ends in despair and condemnation for Van Bommel.
The Dutchman achieved a lot throughout the last 21 seasons, but the joy, trophies, leadership, goals, talent and determination which made up his career will be forgotten. Just like Zinedine Zidane, the red card which marked the end of Mark van Bommel’s career will be the lasting image which symbolises his time as a footballer.
But it’s the sporting achievements which should be focused on. They at least deserve as much celebration and applause as the style and disciplinary record which accompanied them deserve condemnation and reproach.
After 21 seasons, 22 trophies, 807 official matches and 111 goals, Mark van Bommel deserves respect. Criminally, though, he won’t get it as much as he should.
An opinion on Mark van Bommel? (Sure you have) Something to say about the profile? Leave a comment in the fields below.
A little ‘thank you’ to Iain Macintosh, who came up with the title. Thanks Iain!