This interview with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (‘the Hunter’) appeared earlier in the Dutch football culture magazine Staantribune. I translated it and got permission to reproduce it here.
Words by: Hielke Biemond, Teun Meurs, Hein Meurs
Photographs: Thijs Brouwers
Ajax, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Schalke 04: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has played for four major clubs in four different European leagues. Staantribune asked him about his experience with the football culture in these countries. What followed was a no-holds-barred conversation on such diverse topics as the Italian temperament, the Spanish way of life, the German media and creating a special bond with supporters.
Having just finished an animated account of his career, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar imagines what it would be like to be a football player without status, money or a family. “I’d go anywhere and everywhere”, he says, a dreamy glaze covering his eyes. “I do like to travel, it’s fascinating to see the world. A year in Australia, America, Argentina. A bit of backpacking, my soccer boots with me, just see where I end up. What could be better than that? However, I’ve a bunch of other things to mind.”
Playing for German top side Schalke 04 and living with his family just across the border in the Dutch Achterhoek region is close to ideal as well. The striker has found rest here, although it does mean he has had to curb his sense for adventure a bit. Still, there’s plenty left to see yet. His whole life Huntelaar has had an eye for the culture of football surrounding the pitch he plays on. Whether it’s at AGOVV, his first pro side, or at Real Madrid, it fascinates him, affects him.
Playing matches on old, timeworn grounds has become a rarity for Huntelaar. Gone are the days of that old-school football culture, he finds, with a pang of nostalgia. “It’s the people that stay longest, really. They carry the culture of a club in them. Like David Endt at Ajax. At Real Madrid, too, there’s this man, he’s always around. Herrerin, that’s his name. He doesn’t do very much, but he is simply always there. It’s those people who have seen everything come and go. They are the mainstays, the guardians of club culture.”
Do some clubs more than other clubs to stimulate the presence of such people?
“It’s not just a matter of stimulation, it’s also a matter of money. Some clubs want to make a push forward, put themselves on the map. For them, having such people around puts them in the ranks of the amateurs. Not good enough, not professional enough. And thus they slowly but surely get rid of such characters, merely because they don’t ‘fit’. Or because they don’t keep their mouths shut.”
Are you referring to David Endt now, who got his marching orders from Ajax?
“I don’t know the details, it’s not for me to judge the situation. But in my eyes he was a wonderful man, a true romantic. I got along great with him.”
Is that something you look for as a player?
“If you play for a club, you should have some sort of connection with it, I think. My first year at Schalke was great, but I had yet to create a bond with the club. It was only after that first year that I started to get to know people. I started feeling more at one with the club. It’s that feeling that I always try to create at a club. But it is not always there from day one, you know. See, it’s not like I was dreaming to play for Schalke 04 from when I was a ten-year old. I was crazy about Ajax.”
Did that make you any better or a more valuable player in your second year at Schalke?
“Well, in some ways I can give more of myself. It’s like being in a relationship with a woman. First, you go out one night, buying a soft drink for her. Then, some other time, you buy her a nice necklace. It needs time to grow. That feeling, it’s now closer to a hundred percent than if you’d drop me somewhere and I just sit, looking around. The first time you go to your in-laws, you don’t go about the place like you own it either, right?”
Here’s something you don’t see every day: Huntelaar picking up a megaphone after a 4-1 win over FC Twente to lead the fanatic Schalke supporters in song. The Hunter does not shy from interacting with the fans, but he is wary of overdoing it. “I need time to get that connection, that bond”, he stresses. “I tend to keep a little distance.”
Do not mistake this reserve for arrogance. “You need to perform first before you start feeling confident. I have a great connection with the Schalke fans. That’s primarily down to my performance, the rest follows naturally. You need to feel acceptance. If you’re accepted, you’re at home. It’s weird, but that’s the feeling.”
Do you feel that, when you’re out there on the pitch?
“Oh, you can feel it alright which players they like and which they don’t. They’ll whistle this one more readily than the other one.”
So you hear this while playing a match?
“I hear everything. I get these signals, consciously or otherwise. Take a substitution. Do the fans whistle the guy going off or do they whistle something else, the trainer perhaps? I just sense that.”
Does it affect your game?
“Of course. To feel oneness, unity, I need to break a barrier. You have to get the fans behind you. Performing well does that. Giving your all to win their acceptance, that’s why you’re in this game. It keeps you on your toes. However, once I have their acceptance, I will start looking for something new to motivate me. I don’t want to become lazy.”
So basically, what you need is to overcome resistance?
“Yeah, that’s what I like, really, some external influence that will spur me on. It gives a better feeling overcoming that obstacle than to have won acceptance already; the incentive is gone then, in a way.”
What do you mean exactly by “looking for something new”?
“Either you put yourself on the transfer list or you simply set yourself new goals. Look, you’ve already won the fans’ acceptance, you’re not going to lose that anymore. It’s like a relationship: once you’ve won people over, they’re not going to walk out on you. Unless you start behaving like a moron, of course. Other than that, once they accept you, the fans will have difficulty coming down on you.”
Let’s get back to what you said about bonding with fans: do you keep a distance out of a sense of self-preservation?
“Certainly not for the quiet, it’s more like a relationship with a manager. I don’t care much for players who hang around the manager all the time, keeping close, smiling at him. More often than not they’re the ones that spell trouble. I much prefer it when the manager thinks I’m an asshole and he still has to put my name on the team sheet. That’s the best, because then you know that you’re really good. Making it hard on yourself can be a good thing once in a while.”
Has that changed much since you were younger, like when you were still playing at Heerenveen?
“I got along splendidly with my manager Gertjan Verbeek, without talking with him very much, really. That’s the best. I was also quite close with Willy van der Kuijlen, who was my coach when I was at PSV Eindhoven’s academy. He too was a man of few words, but I still think he was great. He just let me go about my business. I had a relationship built on trust with him. Like I had with Verbeek en Huub Stevens. For me, that’s the best situation to be in, because you know you will go through fire and water for each other. They are the three managers with whom I had that feeling in the most extreme degree. With some other managers I definitely did not.”
“Best put your car in the Albert Heijn supermarket car park”, Huntelaar told us before the interview. The choice of venue was his: a pub in Doesburg, just five minutes from where he lives in the east of Holland. Every day, Huntelaar commutes between his house and his club in Gelsenkirchen. One hour, one way. The fact that he is not living in the country where he plays football doesn’t bother him in the least.
“In Germany, reporters write on occasion that the Schalke players live too far away from the club, making them miss out on a lot of stuff. For me, it was one of the perks of playing in Gelsenkirchen that I can live in the part of Holland where I was born, where my wife has her roots, my family too, everybody really.
When times are bad, the media put spotlights on every little thing. That’s a typically German thing to do: focussing on these tiny pretext issues that make me think: this is not the real cause, but it’s an emotional thing the readers may relate to. Journalists try to capitalise on that, stirring up trouble. The Dutch don’t care where you live. It’s not something that will feature in many newspaper articles. In Germany, though, it’s a more sensitive issue. Somehow, if you don’t live in Germany, you’re not considered a true German. It all starts with the media. Public opinion is influenced by the newspapers.”
“No, I don’t follow the news much anyway. The news is what happened, already a bit in the past. Me, I prefer to look forward. Curious thing, news: the media constantly look for news before it even is news. But that’s impossible, because it cannot be news until it first happens. Take the opening of Parliament, for example: reporters want to get their hands on the King’s speech a week early if they can. Why? That’s what I think then: why? It’s not for me, this hunting for news. Give it a rest. The King will speak, everyone is there and only then should a journalist do what he is paid to do: report. But no, there’s always one that has to be first. To me, that’s just sad, you know.”
Their response will be that you hunt for goals.
“True, but at least that has some effect. What they do, doesn’t. First something happens and then you report on it. You can do that as a pompous ass, but also quite modestly.”
The Spanish way of life
Hunting for goals is in The Hunter’s blood. No matter the circumstances, he scores, wherever, whenever. A brief glance of his career will go to confirm that idea: Huntelaar’s scoring ability is impervious to any country’s specific football culture. “I shut myself off somehow”, he says. “I do my thing the way I always do it: I arrive at the ground, put on my kit and play ball. That routine is basically the same everywhere, as I go from one pitch to another. Well, save for the fact that some of them are in sunnier climes than others.”
There is one thing that has turned out a stumbling block for the Hunter: language. “I’d sit in the dressing room and have no clue whatsoever what my team mates are on about. For all I know they’d be talking about me. Not being able to understand everything does make me a little uncertain. I feel like I’m at a disadvantage. But when I get out on the pitch, I won’t let it affect my game. I have this regular running pattern anyway. But ahead of the match it can definitely have an effect on me.”
After what transfer did you experience the biggest culture shock?
“When I went abroad for the first time, moving to Real Madrid from Ajax. My wife and I had to learn the language, look for a house to live in. A completely different life, obviously. It made no sense going out for dinner before ten o’clock, for restaurants would still be closed. I’m used to going to sleep at around eleven. It doesn’t do then to have a warm meal at ten. I’m not too fond of the heat either, if I have to work in it, that is. Normal summers are warm enough as they are. But in Spain you have like seven or eight months of summer. All it did for me was make me feel as though I was holidaying.”
That does not sound like it enhanced your performance much.
“I gave it all I had, but the feeling was different. The weather was great. What do the Dutch do when the weather is great? They break out the barbecue. I put the BBQ out a lot there, as eating out was not on the cards, obviously. Life down there completely upset my daily routine. It’s not good for top athletes to be up late at night. I went to sleep with the airco still blazing. For a Dutchman, that was not natural.”
You had only a brief spell at Real Madrid; do you feel you were part of the club?
“No, not really. It was way too short. I didn’t even get round to familiarising myself with Madrid. It’s too large a city anyway, unlike Milan, where everything is within walking distance. It’s impossible to walk around Madrid and say: well, I’ve seen quite a bit of town now.”
Does Spanish culture in any way seep through to Real Madrid?
“Well, whenever we played on a Saturday, we’d always get a basket of Spanish delicacies the day after. That was kind of nice. Some players would stay after training then, to have a bite together. I don’t mind a good bowl of gazpacho, especially in summer. I still have gazpacho occasionally, because it takes my mind back to that time.”
Was this type of conviviality a regular occurrence, after training sessions, for example?
“Everyone spoke Spanish and Spanish only. Well, a few foreign players would speak English. Training sessions were not that intense, the idea was to maintain fitness. There was a lot of commotion going on anyway, what with managers being replaced all the time. As a result it wasn’t very clear who was in charge.
The selection as a whole would sometimes go out together, although Raúl never joined the rest. Everyone’d be there, except him. I never asked why, it wasn’t my concern at the time. I didn’t even know he could speak English, I only found out when he joined Schalke later. That’s also when I learned that he is just extremely focused.”
So Raúl was not the big star taking young players under his wing at the club?
“No, but that doesn’t happen very often anyways, frankly. Funny, as people often say this, so much so that it’s almost become a cliché. But really, all players focus on their own performances. Sure, they do talk if it comes to pass, but there’s no compulsion or anything.”
This focus on your own performance, is that peculiar to strikers?
“No, it was meant in a more general sense, from what I see around me. It’s not true that players will help newcomers finding a house. You do that on your own. Everyone does their own things, really. Well, sometimes there are people at the club doing stuff for you. Yes, they do say: try to look after those new guys. But it’s up to those new guys to prove themselves first. They don’t get an arm around their shoulder right away, as if they’re mates. It’s fine for them to feel a bit of pressure. Get to it, let’s see what you can do. The bigger the club, the more extreme it gets.”
Living the Italian life
Although his one-year spell at AC Milan was far from successful, Huntelaar enjoyed living in Italy. If only for the club kits. Stylish colour combinations, classic club logos worn on the chest. Huntelaar would trade shirts nearly every single match. “I felt more at home in Italy than in Spain”, he recalls. “I like the food better. Spanish food tends to be a little more greasy, Italian food is clean, lean and healthy.” His face breaks out in a grin. “First impressions are very important to Italians, appearances matter. They are – how do I put this? – a bit more decadent than the Spanish. And I kind of like that. What’s not so nice about them is that they hold women in low regard, like accessories almost. Their women just have to stand there and be pretty, showing off their husband’s class. Women are not for conversation. Whenever I went somewhere with my wife, they’d only have eyes for me and not speak one word to her. I hated that and my wife even more. She preferred Spain. There’s more equality between men and women there.”
But you felt right at home in Italy?
“I loved the passion for football there. It’s an obsession: you see it in the streets, it’s everywhere. It’s in their nature.”
Yet people are unlikely to remember you for your time in Italy.
“True. I preferred the way they play football in Spain. More positive style of play. In Italy football was hard work. Their main aim is to keep a clean sheet. Not my cup of tea at all. AC Milan, where I played, was one of the few sides that had a reasonably offensive style of play. But even then I found their focus on defence too strong.”
Is this dislike of defensive play affected in any way by your position on the field?
“If you’re a defender and you move to Italy, it’s the easy life for you. If you don’t make it there as a defender, I don’t know where you will. Defenders are survivors in Italy. In Spain, referees tend to blow for fouls much more readily. You fall down, you get a free kick almost by default. Not so in Italy. There, standing with your back to your opponent was like handing him an open invitation. Wham, man and ball. That’s the norm over there. But as to their skill, I was not so impressed. It’s not so much that they defend very well, it’s just that there are so many of them. If you ask me, Spanish defenders outclass Italian defenders because of the extra space they have to defend. Italian teams maintain compact defensive lines, making it easier to hit the ball or an attacker.”
The Dutch school
Huntelaar never had trouble adjusting after transfers within Holland, not even when he, hailing from a small village, traded SC Heerenveen for Ajax and the shelter of the country for the tough performance culture of the big city. “That I felt at home right away at Ajax was all down to my performance. I don’t know how I’d felt if I hadn’t started scoring goals from the start. Performance is key. The rest will follow.”
Keen to keep his train of thought flowing, he takes a quick sip. “And for me, playing for Ajax was the one thing I’d always wanted. If it’s within reach, you want to take it. For me it was easy: I just grabbed it. I wasn’t taking revenge on PSV, but it felt good nonetheless. Like saying: Told you so. It gave me confirmation of my ability. At PSV I knew I was not going to get there. All the signs were there. Also in how they dealt with me. At the time it bewildered me. Looking back on it now, I understand it better. There’s two positions for which clubs want dead certs only: goalkeepers and strikers.”
Wasn’t it a culture shock, going from PSV’s second team to AGOVV?
“Not at all, actually. AGOVV had only just been admitted to the professional ranks that year. Playing every week at a level that mattered was a positive thing for me. Just playing ball was great. The rest I didn’t care about. I had a contract. I was totally relaxed about it, although I did want to perform. For me, in a sense, it was like playing in the Eredivisie (the top Dutch league). That feeling. It was the first time I really felt I was making a difference for a team, apart from my time in youth teams, that is.”
Do you ever feel nostalgic for those days?
“No. Mind you, they were good times, but I’ve never been sentimental about the past. I was always looking and going forward. I do sometimes longingly remember my younger days. Really young, I mean, before I played pro. I was nine years old then. Those were the best of times. No pressure, nothing. Just play ball every weekend. If in any way possible, I’d play three matches every Saturday. I’d spend all day at my club. That was just the best. But I don’t look at the world through children’s eyes anymore. If I were to return to this amateur club now, I’d no longer play in a youth team. In fact, I’d be on the veterans team, where you’re up against these overmotivated over-35s who are just keen on mowing you down from behind.”
Will you manage to sustain the love of the game within yourself as long as you play at the top?
“Oh, that love of the game won’t go away so quickly. I’ve always wanted to train, to play ball as often as possible. But now, as I grow older, I feel more and more like my youth is coming to a close. And my football career as well, a bit. In my youth I was always playing football, sucking up everything related to football, I knew everything about it, following everything. That’s a little less now as I’m getting older. Shame, really.”
Beg your pardon? You’re feeling more and more like your football career is coming to a close?
“When my playing days are over, I feel like my youth will be over too. Only then will my adult life begin. That’s what I mean, I think. At first, when you play ball, you don’t think of it as a career, it’s fun, you’re enjoying yourself. But at some point it becomes a career, your job, if you want. But I don’t really see it as a job.”
Do you dread the end of your career?
“No, when the moment’s there, it’s there.”
Without a trace of doubt Huntelaar stresses that of all the countries where he scored goals he feels most closely related to Dutch football culture. “I grew up on it. That’s who I am. I’m Dutch. Not Italian, Spanish or German. As for passion, I like Italy best. But it’s marred a bit by the fact that their stadiums are not filled to capacity. I’m a big fan of the love the Turkish and the Scots have for the game. Nothing surpasses their fanaticism. The English have a great passion for football too, but there’s a bit of class to it, it doesn’t border on insanity there. In Turkey and Scotland it does.”
Would you ever want to play in either of these two countries?
“I’m just talking football culture here. I don’t think living there would be ideal for me and my family.”
You’ve never played for an English club. Does that feel like a loss?
“On the one hand, yes, it’s a shame. On the other: you’re not always in full control of everything, you can’t chalk out your whole life. In my mind, I came to Schalke too soon. This is the best club to end my career at. I love England for its passion, its football culture, the authenticity of their football grounds. But there are many pros and cons.”
No clubs ever showed any interest or did you let family prevail?
“I’ve had offers from English clubs, but it’s not like I could, you know, join Chelsea whenever I wanted.”
Would you have played in England if you were single?
“I might have gone there earlier, yes. I could have played for a club for one year only and then moved on.”
Do you think you could play in a country where there’s hardly any football culture?
“We’d have pre-season or winter training camps in countries like that. There’s nothing there. Take Qatar; it doesn’t really appeal to me as it’s not a real football nation, like Argentina is, for example. Well, perhaps if I’d been single and travelling around the world for a bit. I’d be a fool not to accept the money.” Grinning: “I can always move on, right?”
Would the political situation of a country be a possible factor in keeping you from lining your pockets there?
“I can’t change the whole world, much as I’d like to. There are some countries I definitely wouldn’t go to, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.”
Using relics from the days of yore, some fans are campaigning against the industry that football has become. Painting slogans on sheets, they take a stand against modern football. “Of course I can quite well understand that”, Huntelaar responds. “Football is being totally commercialised in order to squeeze as much money from it as possible. The whole world is money, money, money. It’s got people revolting against it.”
Do you also have this feeling that you don’t really enjoy modern football anymore?
“There are definitely things that I don’t like so much. The whole setup of the Champions League, for example. I liked it better the way it used to be, although I know that is much less profitable. In the current setup, only the strongest teams, the teams with the biggest financial muscle survive. It’s simply a commercial concept. I’m sure if the smaller clubs stand a chance of winning, the public will like it much better. If it is more of a knock-out competition, the minnows will sometimes prevail. Survival of the strongest. More like a boxing match. It would be fairer, actually.”
Do you feel at home in football?
“Playing the game, I do, yes.”
Only playing the game?
“Once a match is over and done, what I do is up to me. I can stay at the club, I can go home. Put myself in front of the camera, give an interview or two. Anything’s possible, really. I just take it easy. I don’t have too much time off as it is.”
Has the influence of big money helped to erase distinctions between types of football culture?
“Differences between some clubs may fade, if they don’t care enough about it. But take Schalke 04. Recently, a musical was made about the history of the club, from 1904 till now. The makers totally embraced the past, trying to pass it on. They’re keen on telling the whole story, A to Z. It’s really a very big thing. Schalke is a club of the people, for the people. People may be destitute, but they have Schalke. It binds people together. Of course, the club is trying to market that feeling, that’s their strategy. But it’s a real feeling nonetheless. At the end of the day it’s down to the fans. If they didn’t think that feeling was real, they’d turn their backs on the club. That’s the great thing about it. Fans either clap their hand silly or they take out their white hankies. That’s where the buck stops. For the players and club alike. It’s the fans who are in control: in or out. It’s the fans who have the power, and that’s most definitely the case at Schalke 04.”
Do you play for the fans?
“When you start playing, you play for yourself and in a way that doesn’t change. You don’t start out thinking about fans or supporters. But as you grow older and crowds get bigger, things change. Then you do get that extra motivation to make people who spend their last dime on a club happy with something as simple as a goal, bringing out their emotions. It creates a bond for life. For them, but for me as well. For a country even. Just look at how people in Holland went crazy during the 2010 World Cup. Isn’t that just the greatest? That you can inspire so much euphoria in people just by doing what you like best. To me, that’s the most touching aspect of football. The moment Patrick Kluivert scored the winning goal for Ajax in the 1995 Champions League final, I jumped up on the sofa at home. Tears in my eyes, so to speak. Even though Kluivert didn’t really know he inspired this feeling in me, doing what he did. I treasured that feeling, thinking: I can do that too.”
When you scored a late penalty for Holland to beat Mexico 2-1 at the 2014 World Cup, did you realise there were countless little Huntelaars watching you at home, jumping on the sofa?
“It was the most intense moment of my career so far. Snatching a late victory from the jaws of defeat. It may sound crazy, but when you’re the one doing it, you don’t realise it as much. The feeling I experienced when Kluivert scored his winning goal, I was now putting across to people. I don’t look at myself the same way I look at my heroes. I don’t consider myself a hero so much. I know what I’m like, I’ve been like that for thirty years. But I do remember how I looked at Kluivert back then. I know that feeling very well.”