First came Breugel, Bosch and Vermeer – pioneering and deft of touch. Then came Cruyff, van Basten and Bergkamp – the supreme artists of space and time. Now, it’s the turn of Gregory van der Wiel. Paris Saint-Germain’s right-back is a Dutch Master for the 21st century – resilient, fine-tuned and ready to illuminate the City of Light. For his body is his canvas, and the metropolis his Garden of Earthly Delights.
By Jonathan Johnson
Photography Christophe Meimoon
Styling Julian Ganio
This is an extract from Issue 8 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015. The full version of this article can be found in the latest edition of the printed magazine, now available to pre-order from our online store.
Gregory van der Wiel is confident. It’s the kind of confidence born of the feeling of satisfaction provided by a sense of accomplishment. He immediately comes over and introduces himself before our interview, stepping out of the glare of the lights populating the plush photography studio in south-west Paris. He’s at ease, natural, and punctures the hushed diligence of the busy studio with the odd joke here, a laugh there; through it all, he has the relaxed air of a man wholly content with the way things are going, both on and off the pitch.
This maturity, this ability to balance his profession with the off-field endeavours in which he so clearly revels, is not something that has come easy. And perhaps that’s why it’s a great source of pride for the Netherlands international; that much is clear from speaking to him about what he calls “one of the most important decisions of my life”.
Last season, in the wake of a difficult debut campaign in France with Ligue 1 giants Paris Saint-Germain, van der Wiel saw his excellent second term curtailed by an ill-timed injury. Sustained during the early part of 2014, the problem—with a tendon in his right knee—would go on to derail the remainder of the 26-year-old’s season. More than that, though, it would force him into making the biggest decision of his career so far, just weeks before last summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
“I was selected, but it was my decision to withdraw,” he explains, when I ask him how difficult he found it to relinquish his place in Louis van Gaal’s provisional 30-man squad for the tournament. “This was a really grown-up and mature decision from me. It was a very important decision in my life and not one that was made with my heart, but with my head. I could have gone to the World Cup and played; I really wanted to, as well. But it was not smart and I could have been injured for a very long period. I am glad to be at this point where I can make these hard decisions intelligently and I think it was right, long-term.” It’s the mention of intelligence, of the responsibility to do the right thing, that underscores his pride as he reflects on what is surely the toughest moment of his career to date.
“Then, one day, the guy behind the desk at the bank told my mother to sign me up for AFC Ajax’s talent day so that I could work off some of [my] energy.”
Van der Wiel is in a good place right now. After a tough start to life in Paris, the Amsterdammer has overcome adversity and stiff competition to re-establish himself as the first-choice right-back for up-and-coming European powerhouse PSG. It’s been a road littered with obstacles, however, and it’s fair to say that his time in the French capital has been far from plain sailing. But perhaps that’s par for the course for a player who rose to prominence rapidly, and who is no stranger to setbacks.
“It happened at a young age, when I was seven. My mum actually told me this story again recently,” he says, grinning excitedly as he recounts his first steps on the road to international recognition and football superstardom. “I was busy, impatient and I had so much energy that I was running around all the time and annoying people. Then, one day, the guy behind the desk at the bank told my mother to sign me up for AFC Ajax’s talent day so that I could work off some of that energy. My mum thought it was a good idea and I went. I loved playing football on the streets every day and I made it to the next round of the scouting, and then the next one. There were about twelve stages, with less and less players each time, and that is how I eventually ended up at Ajax.”
This is an extract from Issue 8 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015. The full version of this article can be found in the latest edition of the printed magazine, now available for pre-order from our online store.