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Why Mark van Bommel was the most misunderstood footballer ever

The name of one man reverberated inexorably around Eindhoven’s Philips Stadion. One man who transcended the playing field, who represented the hometown club with inimitable pride, and who dominated Dutch football for an entire generation.

“Mark van Bommel!” roared the excited hordes, nostalgic as the PSV captain left his home field one last time after scoring in a 5-2 demolition of Groningen. The fans wanted more.

The 2012-13 season, in which the club’s definitive icon finally returned home, had not gone according to plan. However, on its penultimate day, every man, woman and child rose defiantly to extol the virtues of van Bommel. Amid the vociferous waves of support, a solitary banner was unfurl. “Mark Moet Blijven,” it proclaimed. Mark Must Stay.

The midfielder bulwark, overcome by such attempts to make him postpone a planned retirement, became teary eyed at the sound of his name cascading off every seat, rebounding off every stand and echoing through every cranny of Eindhoven’s football amphitheatre. A stadium that bore witness to Romário, gave free reign to Ronaldo, and staged an endless stream of PSV coronations had rarely experienced anything like it. Grown adults screamed themselves hoarse in appreciation of one man.

When the final whistle blew, van Bommel traipsed slowly across the turf, realising with each step his ascension to the mountain’s peak. He could no longer hear the shrill catcalls, the dreary jeers, the vengeful spiel of uninformed sceptics who tarnished his reputation. For that one, glorious moment, Mark van Bommel was free, welcomed for all eternity into the heart of a city he made smile. He was the king of PSV.

Why Mark van Bommel was misunderstood

Along the way, many people tried to drag van Bommel down, attacking his craft, bemoaning his character and questioning his motives. Mark was branded a thug, a vigilante, a lumbering football Neanderthal capable only of grinding opponents into dust and influencing referees. The mainstream exaggerated and distorted his methodology so much that, now, people associate Mark van Bommel solely with hysterical lunges, cynical elbows and the regular procurement of red or yellow cards. Very few acknowledge the man’s intelligence, nor his seemingly forgotten skill.

Ultimately, whatever people scream to the contrary, van Bommel won in the end. He did whatever he needed to do in order to succeed and, boy, that trophy cabinet speaks for itself. Between 2000 and 2011, Mark won eight domestic league titles in four different countries, his Eredivisie omnipotence complemented by success in Germany, Spain and Italy.

Mark played over 500 professional games, earned 79 caps for his country, and was twice crowned Dutch Footballer of the Year, a prestigious honour. Mark rose to prominence with PSV, helped Barcelona flourish, captained the great Bayern Munich, and contributed immensely to a successful AC Milan side. He represented with distinction some of Europe’s grandest clubs during a glittering twenty-year career that deserves far more respect than is typically afforded.

Mark van Bommel at RKVV Maasbracht

To play professional football at an elite level was always the dream. Mark was born on 22nd April 1977 in Maasbracht, a small town nestled in the Netherlands’ southernmost quadrant, straddling the border with Belgium.

The van Bommel household was equidistant from Eindhoven in the north, Genk in the east and Mönchengladbach in the west, a true hotbed of football. John, Mark’s father, was treasurer and secretary at RKVV Maasbracht, a local amateur side where members pay for equipment, kits and facilities such as a canteen, presently decorated with shirts worn by its prodigal son. Naturally, Mark joined the club early, in 1985, aged eight. The journey of a thousand miles began with those first humble steps.

At RKVV, van Bommel, already a barnstorming midfielder blessed with a relentless appetite for goals, typically played with boys two years older than himself, learning how to fight and survive on the field from an early age. Everybody knew that Mark was destined to play professionally, and each performance of startling skill and phenomenal physical prowess served to substantiate the notion.

In 1991, Roda JC, a medium-sized club, became the first to register serious interest in van Bommel. Mark and his even travelled to a Kerkrade hotel in order to discuss potential deals with club officials. However, negotiations stalled when the Eredivisie outfit offered just 150,000 guilders by way of a signing-on bonus. The van Bommel family decided to reject any further negotiations in favour of finding a more suitable offer elsewhere.

How Fortuna Sittard launched the career of Mark van Bommel

Fortuna Sittard, about to embark on a true halcyon period, didn’t offer the most substantive financial package either, but by promising to devote special attention to Mark’s physical, emotional and technical development, the club showcased a greater grasp of pastoral duties than any other competitor. With encouragement from his family, Mark, then just fifteen years old, elected to sign with the Limburg side, taking a huge leap into the professional arena.

After a relatively brief spell in the Sittard youth team, van Bommel made his senior debut in 1992, sporting a rather comical haircut-moustache combo. The following year, he featured more prominently, making thirteen appearances in the Eerste Divisie and demonstrating his immense if somewhat raw potential.

In the following years, Sittard fashioned a very strong team, built around van Bommel and encompassing future PSV teammates Kevin Hofland, Wilfred Bouma and Patrick Pauuwe, in addition to the legendary Fernando Ricksen. They were promoted into the Eredivisie as champions in 1994, with van Bommel, who made thirty-one appearances and scored seven goals, playing an instrumental role.

A period of consolidation followed before the club progressed to achieve finishes of 11th, 7th and 10th in the Dutch top flight. Bert van Marwijk, a pillar throughout van Bommel’s career and, in a unique twist, his future father-in-law, began his managerial career with Fortuna in 1998, embracing Mark as the club’s most influential player.

During the 1998-99 campaign, Fortuna embarked on a fairy-tale KNVB Beker run that highlighted van Bommel’s spell at the club and served to catapult him into the thoughts of chief decision-makers at larger teams. Sittard beat RKC, Twente, and Emmen en route to a mouth-watering semi-final showdown with Bobby Robson’s PSV in Eindhoven.

Mark produced an exceptional performance, dominating with typical industry, playing an assist for Ronald Hamming to equalise Ruud van Nistelrooy’s early goal, and, in a poetic portent, receiving a yellow card after seventy-eight minutes. Fortuna triumphed 3-1 and, despite losing to Ajax in the final, PSV functionaries fell in love with his ability.

Mark van Bommel and the PSV dynasty

Eric Gerets was particularly enamoured of the 22-year old juggernaut. The taciturn Belgian was appointed PSV boss in July 1999, and van Bommel seemed just the kind of player he would be inclined to buy. A fearsome leader, Mark played football the right way, the honest way, the Eric Gerets Way. Naturally, he became the coach’s second summer signing, transferring to PSV for £2.8 million and instantly becoming an integral part of a team that re-wrote the modern history of football in Eindhoven.

Shortly after acquiring van Bommel, Gerets brought in fellow midfielder Johann Vogel on a free transfer from Grasshoppers of Zurich. The dynamic duo fused together to dominate Dutch midfields for the next six years, playing a combined 338 games for PSV and striking an engine room equipoise rarely matched anywhere in Europe.

The marauding van Bommel and technically sublime Vogel complimented each other perfectly; one breaking through forward lines as the other held the fort; one daring to create as the other conserved possession and ensured continuity of play; one destroying as the other built. They switched roles with telepathic ease, staying one step ahead of the opposition and intelligently pooling their combined ability to win balls, games and trophies.

Van Bommel and Vogel formed the versatile spine of a very impressive team in 1999-2000 as a powerful blend of Robson’s old guard - led by Luc Nilis and Arnold Bruggink - and Geret’s rising stars - including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Andre Ooijer, Wilfred Bouma and Dennis Rommedahl - fired PSV to the Eredivisie crown at a canter.

Playing a wonderfully fluid brand of interchanging football emanating from the startling van Bommel-Vogel symbiosis, PSV scored 105 goals, amassed 84 points and stormed past second-place Heerenveen with ease. Mark won his first league title. The first of many to come.

In the summer of 2000, PSV replaced the Aston Villa-bound Nilis with Mateja Kežman, a potent striker who arrived from Partizan Belgrade for a club record fee of £11.8 million. Nilis, club captain and fan favourite, left a spiritual, emotional and physical void that van Bommel was directed to fill. He did so immaculately.

Prior to the 2000-01 season, aged just 23, Mark assumed the PSV captaincy, fulfilling a life dream and entering a searing spotlight that would not be extinguished for well over a decade. The mantle of Eindhoven sporting greatness had a new steward. He was ferocious, driven, alert and agile. He bestrode the turf of Holland with the strength of an ox and the energy of an Olympian. He wore the number six.

Mark’s first act as captain was to lift the Johan Cruyff Shield of 2000 as PSV beat Roda JC in Amsterdam. It proved to be a portent of domination and silverware to come. That year, with van Bommel leading the way and Kežman and Van Nistelrooy forming a deadly duo, PSV won the Eredivisie at whim, earning 83 points compared to the 66 of second-place Feyenoord.

Largely helped by a slew of stupendous performances during that campaign, van Bommel was crowned Dutch Footballer of the Year in 2001, a truly prestigious honour decided through a poll of fellow professionals. Let it never be said that Mark van Bommel was disliked within football, with such accolades commonplace throughout his career.

When PSV played Feyenoord in the UEFA Cup quarter-final

The subsequent loss of van Nistelrooy to Manchester United, coupled with a greater focus on European competition, saw PSV struggle somewhat in 2001-02. After again winning the Cruyff Shield, Gerets’ men were trumped by Ajax in the league. However, the aforementioned desire to compete in Europe - a recurring feature throughout PSV history - afforded van Bommel the first truly monumental game of his career, as the Eindhoven giants progressed to a titanic UEFA Cup quarter-final with native rivals Feyenoord, coached, in a Shakespearean twist, by Bert van Marwijk.

In the second leg, held on a magical evening in Rotterdam, van Bommel opened the scoring with a sublime, twenty-five yard strike that scythed away from goalkeeper Edwin Zoetebier and thundered with unerring violence into the top corner. With just fourteen minutes remaining in the heavyweight clash, Mark’s goal, that of a wonderfully perceptive captain recognising his team’s yearning, put PSV 2-1 up on aggregate.

Then disaster struck.

The magnificent Pierre Van Hooijdonk out-jumped van Bommel at the far post to loop home a desperate, 93rd minute equaliser, forcing extra-time as De Kuip was transformed into a cauldron of excitement and hostility.

Early in the first additional period, Mark compounded his worsening night by collecting a second yellow card, a mistimed tackle on the greasy pitch ruining his ability to take a penalty in the eventual shootout that fired Feyenoord to victory. The Rotterdam side ultimately won the UEFA Cup as van Bommel and PSV were left heartbroken.

This, too, was a harbinger of agony to come.

How Guus Hiddink transformed Mark van Bommel at PSV

Nevertheless, van Bommel was soon granted his international debut by Oranje coach Louis van Gaal in a 4-0 World Cup 2002 qualification victory over Cyprus. Even as Mark became a more prominent feature in an injury-ravaged Dutch squad, scoring against Andorra, England and Estonia, the team continued to struggle for traction in a group eventually won by the Republic of Ireland. Oranje failed in World Cup qualification for the first time in sixteen years, leading to van Gaal’s acrimonious departure.

Similarly, back at PSV, Gerets was dismissed in the immediate aftermath of the Feyenoord defeat, to be replaced by club icon Guus Hiddink, who embarked on his second tour of duty as PSV boss. This move proved to be the first in a series of timely interventions that boosted van Bommel’s career intermittently. Hiddink’s arrival gave Mark the impetus to strive for success and to demand more of himself. The duo worked exceptionally well together, perhaps better than any coach-captain syndicate I have ever witnessed.

Guus was a master strategist, a purveyor of pragmatic yet entertaining football, and a revered leader. Mark was his on-field enforcer, his chief lieutenant, and his mouthpiece within the dressing room. The powerful relationship helped deliver the most unbelievable, unexpected and thoroughly unforgettable reign of greatness in the contemporary tale of PSV. It worked with lyrical perfection.

Hiddink replenished the squad, laying dynastic foundations with the purchase of future greats like Ji-Sung Park, Lee Young-Pyo and Arjen Robben. The injection of fresh ideas and fresh blood made PSV, and van Bommel, hungrier than ever. Hiddink’s men outlasted Ajax to reclaim the Eredivisie title by one mere point in 2003 as Eindhoven celebrated its seventeenth domestic crown with gusto.

At this time, domestic Dutch football was about to embark on a real halcyon period. Kežman was in devastating form, scoring at an uprecedented rate; van Hooijdonk continued to reign supreme in Rotterdam, with a fresh-faced winger named Robin van Persie learning from his every move; and Ajax dazzled with Zlatan Ibrahimović and Rafael van der Vaart.

Yet Mark van Bommel was different. He would just dominate games, standing out like a palatial castle in this kingdom of mansions. Mark would simply glide across the turf, fitter than everybody else, more confident than everybody else, and more assured in his own capability than everybody else. He was peerless, breaking up opposition attacks with ease and conceiving PSV attacks at whim. I would just watch in awe, for he seemed to be elevated at an entirely different level. During this, his wonderful prime, Mark van Bommel was a ball-winning, goal-scoring, omnipotent powerhouse, the like of which I had never seen. It was a pleasure to be part of his epich.

The the 2003-04 season was a relative down year for PSV, who failed to invest over the summer and relied too heavily on Vogel and van Bommel before losing out to Ajax in the Eredivisie. On a personal note, van Bommel suffered a heart-breaking series of Achilles problems that ruled him out of Euro 2004 with Holland. He fought hard to regain fitness but, after one final MRI revealed a deep-lying problem, Mark was replaced by Paul Bosvelt in the final squad.

This was a tremendous shame, the world robbed of a chance to see Mark van Bommel in his scintillating pomp, and the Netherlands shorn of a pragmatic difference-maker in an otherwise typically cavalier Dick Advocaat side that enthralled but ultimately came unstuck in a semi-final with hosts Portugal.

Prior to the 2004-05 campaign, which proved to be the most mesmeric of Mark’s magnificent career, another of those timely interventions occurred as Eindhoven’s prodigal son returned to light the blue touch paper.

Phillip Cocu was always adored among the legions of PSV fans. The artistic midfielder, gifted with a magical left foot at birth, grew up in Eindhoven and proceeded to enthral during a trophy-laden, three-year stretch at the club in the late-1990s. After six years away, becoming captain and record foreign appearance holder at Barcelona, Cocu returned to succour Hiddink’s revolution in 2004, aged 34. That signing, in as much as its effect on team dynamics and enabling future success, is perhaps the most inspired in PSV history.

The presence of Cocu, a sensationally balanced footballer and teammate of van Bommel at international level, afforded Guus Hiddink the opportunity to tweak his system, ushering PSV from the conventional 4-4-2 to the free-flowing, progressive 4-3-3 that helped the club blaze a trail of success at home and in Europe. Now, the team had just a gorgeous midfield equipoise, with the left-footed Cocu roaming free, the de facto “anchor” van Bommel proving impregnable, and the studious Vogel knitting it all together.

Hiddink fashioned a versatile, talented and dedicated team around this impressive core, with Huerhelo Gomes in goal; Ooijer, Alex, Bouma and Pyo at the back; and Jefferson Farfán and Park providing ammunition for Vennegoor of Hesselink in attack.

Naturally, a team of such tremendous pace, power, poise and balance ran rampant in the Eredivisie. PSV practically steamrolled opponents, with the new formation at once creating forward diversity and defensive strength. Hiddink’s men conceded just eighteen league goals all season while scoring 89, good for an absurd +71-goal difference. Obviously, this carried PSV to another Eredivisie title, the eighteenth in club history.

In a touching vignette linking two distinct strands of said history, van Bommel ventured into the Philips Stadion grandstand to allow Frits Philips, a founding father of the team and its most fervent fan, an opportunity to hoist the league shield. It was a moment of real sensitivity, of outstanding class and fellowship. There was nary a dry eye in Eindhoven that night.

Of course, van Bommel played a significant role in landing that championship, ultimately his last in the famous red-and-white stripes. It was his most prolific season, the captain’s seventeen goals speaking succinctly to his influential style and appetite for success.

Mark van Bommel and the famous hat-trick against Ajax Amsterdam

In a season littered with stupendous moments and brilliant games, one stands out above all else. It was 20th March 2005. Ajax versus PSV in Amsterdam. A win for Hiddink’s charges would virtually secure the league title and, as they were wont to do, the club’s two cultured veterans rose to the occasion.

Cocu opened the scoring with a prodigious diving header before van Bommel proceeded to simply obliterate all that lay before him. On the stroke of half-time, the captain steered home PSV’s second, wielding away to scream and pump his fist and celebrate wildly with teammates. After the break, Mark added his second from the penalty spot before clinching a remarkable hat-trick by tucking home an audacious third after great industry from Park and Farfán.

In a phenomenal career spanning more than two decades, and including appearances in World Cup and UEFA Champions League finals, this moment, this wonderful hat-trick bringing joy to thousands, may very well stand as the zenith of Mark van Bommel’s footballing life.

It was certainly my favourite moment authored by the curly-haired genius. I was one of the many thousands enraptured by his display, and that of his team, in Amsterdam. At this time, I was falling in love with Dutch football, with the Eredivisie, and with PSV. It was enchanting to cheer for these magnificent players, these complete superstars playing a terrific brand of football. I just could not get enough.

When PSV lost to AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final

That fairy-tale season culminated in unbearable anguish, however. Despite claiming another domestic title, PSV fell to AC Milan in a Champions League semi-final for the ages. Down 2-0 from the first leg, PSV came roaring back before a vociferous Eindhoven crowd.

Park slammed home an early goal before Cocu equalised on sixty-five minutes. The team was simply purring, intent on blasting through the fabled Milanese and on into a poetic final with Liverpool. Yet that deciding goal just would not arrive. Worse still, in the dying embers of extra-time, the pale spectre of Massimo Ambrosini ghosted in to coax a gut-wrenching, tie-clinching, sucker-punching header past Gomes.

Agony.

Again.

At the time, more Machiavellian quarters of the press attempted to blame van Bommel, who appeared blindsided in the build-up to that fateful goal, allowing Ambrosini to penetrate the pivotal space behind him. However, nobody in Eindhoven, and nobody with any semblance of knowledge regarding the fortunes of its cherished football club, could justifiable criticise Mark van Bommel, the gladiator who rejected a stream of transfer offers, from Borussia Dortmund and others, just to stay and help PSV achieve the Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, it did not work out as we all dreamed it would and, barely a month later, Mark left for new challenges, new teammates and, yes, a new club. This hurt even more than the semi-final defeat.

The forgotten tale of Mark van Bommel at Barcelona

Frank Rijkaard, ever eager to surround himself with fellow countrymen, signed van Bommel on a free transfer to bolster his title-winning Barcelona side and imbue into his eclectic squad a splash of seasoned European expertise. Mark joined a different Barcelona to the one so lauded today. Different in style and substance, if not results.

In recent times, the 2005-06 Barça iteration has been perpetually slighted, with modern fans, blinded by the romantic Guardiola revolution, branding as obsolete and unworthy its erratic, rambunctious methodology. Many contemporary critics, drunk on the hipsters pre-occupation with tiki-taka, lambaste Rijkaard’s Barça for being so cavalier and boisterous. They have been tricked into thinking this was a wholly dysfunctional team of expensive players and big egos that shared a thorough insouciance towards the club’s grand philosophy; a team, built around Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Deco, that highlighted an identity crisis at board level, with management turning to capitalism rather than intellectualism in forming a squad which deviated from the core Catalan principles ingrained at Camp Nou.

To make such grandiose claims is to plead guilty of gross embellishment. Rijkaard’s Barça were mightily entertaining and, though anathema to Pep’s masterpiece, very successful. In 2005-06 alone, they won the Supercopa de Espana, defended a hard-fought La Liga crown, and clinched the UEFA Champions League playing some wonderfully enchanting football.

No matter what certain biased experts may attempt to tell you, Mark van Bommel played a crucial part, rotating to great effect in midfield with Xavi, Iniesta, Edmilson, Thiago Motta and the aforementioned Deco. At this point, the sensationally exaggerated notion of van Bommel as some kind of incapable troll began to gain traction; his task, as a classic defensive midfielder in the Barcelona system, being entirely misinterpreted by footballing elitists.

Mark became a so-called ‘master of the dark arts,’ because that is what Barcelona required. And rightfully so. Why would any manager choose to have van Bommel breaking forward as a box-to-box creator when Deco, Xavi, Iniesta, Ronaldinho, Eto’o and a young whipper-snapper named Messi were part of the same squad? It would be simply illogical.

Therefore, rather than transplanting the all-round style that helped him rise to domination in Eindhoven, Mark, quite intelligently, became the one thing Barcelona did not have in their magical inventory: a midfield destroyer, a serviceable plug, an insurance policy to let the free spirits roam. This is basic evolution, finding a way to survive at the highest level when all odds are against you.

Mark van Bommel reinvented himself and, to his personal delight and that of Barça fans everywhere, it worked a treat. He played in nine of the club’s 13 Champions League games en route to glory, including a start in the final with Arsenal. He was an essential part of the overarching tactical game plan, a cog in the machine performing important duties that nobody else could. To ignore his importance is to be illiterate in the workings of a football team. The formula worked, even if football snobs and Guardiola disciples want to attack Rijkaard and his iconoclastic Barça.

In the summer of 2006, van Bommel achieved another of his childhood dreams: playing at a World Cup. At one point, his participation seemed highly unlikely, a disagreement with coach Marco van Basten leading to his relegation from the squad during qualification. However, a burst of fine form saw van Bommel included in the final party bound for Germany, where he played in all three group games against Argentina, Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro before Oranje were again eliminated by Portugal in the Round of 16, a game infamously dubbed The Battle of Nuremberg as four players were sent off and sixteen others, including van Bommel, were booked.

Mark van Bommel at Bayern Munich

Shortly after the World Cup’s conclusion, Uli Hoeneß, president of Bayern Munich, rather surprisingly announced the €6 million signing of van Bommel, cutting short the Dutchman’s La Liga stay and prompting the next major chapter in his eclectic career.

In 2006-07, the Bavarian giants struggled for the direction and formidable consistency that traditionally hallmarked their success. Solving that problem, Mark worked well with both Felix Magath and Ottmar Hitzfeld, his successor, and was one of the few bright sparks in an otherwise forgettable campaign.

As Bayern finished fourth behind Werder Bremen, Schalke and champions Stuttgart, van Bommel provided the strength and reliability so typical of Magath’s doctrine, yet also rediscovered his attacking verve, becoming a frequent goalscorer and belying his one-dimensional image portrayed by the media. Mark was so influential, and such a wonderful leader, as to be voted Bayern Player of the Year in his debut season, beginning a warm relationship with Munich fans that endures to this day.

The summer of 2007 brought vast change at the Alianz Arena, however, as Bayern had a thorough clear out. A cast of experienced veterans moved along, with players such as Owen Hargreaves, Roque Santa Cruz, Roy Makaay, Claudio Pizzaro and Hasan Salihamidžić departing, to be replaced by a fresh wave of talent, headlined by Frank Ribery, Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose, Hamit Altintop and Ze Roberto.

Through all the upheaval, van Bommel remained ubiquitous, a true barometer of his vital importance. He frequently partnered a young Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, and was part of a Bayern team, fuelled by the goals of Toni, Klose and Ribery, that soared to a domestic double of league and cup. This was a major triumph in Mark’s career, a sign that he was back on top, proving people wrong.

Yet around this time, he again encountered struggle on the international scene, another dispute with van Basten leading van Bommel to declare an unwillingness to represent Oranje until the incumbent regime, with which he disagreed on a variety of issues, was replaced. Unfortunately, this precipitated a two-year international hiatus and cost Mark the chance to play at another major tournament.

Meanwhile, in Munich, legendary goalkeeper Oliver Kahn retired in 2008, relinquishing the captaincy he had occupied for six seasons. Incoming Bayern boss Jürgen Klinsman bestowed the honour upon van Bommel, this perhaps the most eloquent indicator that his career, once just a boyhood dream, had become an unfettered success. Mark became the very first, and thus far only, non-German to skipper Bayern Munich, a stupefying privilege, especially for a proud Dutchman.

To be captain of Bayern Munich is to be blessed with a sacrosanct duty. It is to follow in the footsteps of Beckenbauer, Muller and Rummenigge; Augenthaler, Matthäus and Effenburg. It is to be afforded a special place in the history of a European superpower, a seat within the pantheon of greats. It is to be accepted as a fine footballer and an exemplary human being.

“Mark is predestined for the role,” proclaimed Klinsman. “He’s been an outstanding leader and commands admiration and respect from all the players, young and old alike.” Such praise, from a man he grew up admiring, was greater than the receipt of any trophy for Mark van Bommel, who determined to lead Bayern to consistent success.

However, when the club underperformed in 2008-09, with the Magath-led Wolfsburg competing alongside them before sneaking the title late on, it became clear that Bayern needed a fresh outlook. Similarly, at the age of 32, van Bommel required another spark, another change and another incentive to rejuvenate his career. In the brash and iconoclastic form of Louis van Gaal, the solution finally appeared.

Mark remained captain and, just like with Hiddink years earlier, stood forth as a supportive figurehead as the club was transformed by a behemoth manager. At van Gaal’s behest, Bayern signed Arjen Robben, Mario Gomez and Ivica Olić, three players who brought a touch of class and, naturally, came to foster a deep respect for van Bommel, who steered the club to a league and cup double.

At the Santiago Bernabéu in early May 2010, Bayern had an opportunity to win a fabled treble, with van Gaal’s men squaring off against Joe Mourinho’s Internazionale in the Champions League final. Van Bommel’s bittersweet relationship with this sacrosanct competition continued, the emotional leader playing in the showcase, receiving a yellow card, and feeling his heart break as two Diego Milito goals mixed Milanese delight with Bavarian agony.

Mark van Bommel and the infamous 2010 World Cup

However, shortly thereafter, Mark marched with his nation into another World Cup, as part of a rejuvenated Dutch side under the familiar tutelage of Bert van Marwijk. In South Africa, the Netherlands negotiated with ease a group containing Denmark, Cameroon and Japan before squeezing past Slovakia and Brazil to reach an eagerly anticipated semi-final against Uruguay. Goals from van Bronckhorst, Sneijder and Robben negated those of Diego Forlán and Maxi Pereira as Holland progressed to the World Cup final.

Facing a Spanish side widely considered among the greatest of all-time, van Marwijk and Oranje authored a rugged game plan that, among other things, was branded “vulgar” by Johan Cruyff. Naturally, van Bommel, along with Nigel de Jong, his fellow midfield bombardier, played a forthright role in disrupting, demotivating and destroying Spain, with fouls on Andres Iniesta earning particular scorn.

While I would never attempt to condone the deeply agricultural methodology employed by Oranje in Soccer City, it very nearly worked. It allowed the Dutch to stay within touching distance, and afforded them an opportunity to win the game. Of course, we all remember Casillas getting the better of Robben, before Iniesta won the game, but things could quite easily have been different, and the intensive strategy, conceived by the coach and enforced by van Bommel and others, helped fuel that hope, that possibility, that potential for ultimate glory against a sensational football team. Perhaps it just was not meant to be.

How AC Milan resurrected the career of Mark van Bommel

Mark entered the following season, 2010-11, with ample trepidation, as Bayern were not forthcoming with an extension to his expiring contract. At campaign’s end, van Bommel would be a 34-year old free agent with a deteriorating, if wholly unfair, reputation. He felt a need to begin searching for new opportunities and make decisions for the long-term benefit of his young family.

Accordingly, in January 2011, Mark requested, and was granted, special permission to be released early from his contract, enabling him to gain a head start in negotiations with potential suitors.

“I’m leaving FC Bayern with a heavy heart but also with my head held high,” van Bommel declared. “I had four-and-a-half wonderful and successful years here and would like to express my gratitude to the club and its fans. FC Bayern will always have a place in my heart.”

With that, Mark van Bommel began searching for his next challenge. In super agent Mino Raiola, he possessed an ally extremely proficient in moulding extraordinary deals for his clients, an adviser with expert knowledge of the Italian football market. Naturally, the many strands of this scenario fused together, with Raiola able to eke out a deal with AC Milan. Mark added another gargantuan club and palatial home stadium to his resume, joining the team that once so shattered his heart.

In what many would consider typical style, van Bommel was sent off for two mistimed tackles in his Serie A debut, the world’s very avatar of rugged football proving compatible with the attrition of Italian football. However, the Dutchman eventually settled into Massimiliano Allegri’s side, rotating with fellow countryman Clarence Seedorf in addition to Andrea Pirlo, Genarro Gattuso, Mathieu Flamini and Ambrosini, his personal nemesis.

As the 2010-11 season rose to a fine crescendo, van Bommel played an instrumental role, offering his coach a more pragmatic option in big games, such as the Derby della Madonnina against Inter. Ultimately, Mark helped to an 18th Scudetto the stupendous and volatile Milan of Pato and Zlatan, Robinho and Ronaldinho, Thiago Silva and Kevin-Prince Boateng. The skinny kid from Maasbracht joined an arcane group of players to win domestic titles in four major European countries, a truly phenomenal achievement.

Mark received a contract extension and stayed at the San Siro through 2011-12 as Milan finished second behind the dynastic-minded Juventus. In April 2012, aged 35, van Bommel was still so effective, important and instrumental that AC Milan offered him a fresh one-year contract, but the ageing warrior had other plans, other ideas, and other dreams. He yearned for home, and the one club ingrained deeper in his soul than any other.

Mark van Bommel wanted to bring the glory days back to PSV.

The homecoming

First, he had one last shot at international success, as captain of an ageing Dutch squad heading for Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. The entire campaign descended into farce, Oranje looking slow and sluggish en route to three straight group defeats and a dismal exit. At times, van Bommel struggled mightily with the pace and tempo of games and, unsurprisingly, announced his international retirement shortly after the tournament, having played the same amount of games as Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert, and one more than the great Ronald Koeman.

Mark van Bommel served his nation admirably.

Marcel Brands, PSV technical director, felt similarly about bringing Mark back to Eindhoven, having reappointed Advocaat in May hoping for another big money crack at glory. Following a protracted negotiation process, van Bommel finally secured his Eindhoven return, in a move obviously geared towards ending the ignominious drought at PSV.

“I came here to play for trophies,” declared Mark, who resumed captaincy of his beloved club. “I have a feeling I can go for the championship with PSV. This feels like coming home.”

Van Bommel led a team of big personalities and bigger expectations, with star players like Kevin Strootman, Georginio Wijnaldum, Dries Mertens, Jeremain Lens and Ola Toivonen vying for time and attention. PSV won the Johan Cruyff Shield in Mark’s first game back, beating Ajax 4-2, before the old warhorse reintroduced himself to the Eredivisie by getting booked in his first five league matches.

However, van Bommel soon regained his famous form, kicking into stride with goals against NAC, VVV Venlo and Willem II. Later in the campaign, he scored in back-to-back games, including a sublime, pleasantly anachronistic free-kick against AZ as PSV remained in contention for a first title in five years.

However, the juggernaut was ultimately undone by its own enthusiasm. A scintillating team, PSV scored 103 league goals; honed a 60+ goal difference; scored four goals thrice, five goals five times, six goals on three occasions and seven once, yet, quite inexplicably, lost crucial games at vital junctures in a most innocuous manner. Advocaat’s side, glistening with his trademark attacking intent and largesse, was defeated by Waalwijk on opening day; Utrecht in September, Vitesse in November; Zwolle in January; Ajax home and away; Feyenoord and Heerenveen, en route to an excruciating second place finish.

In one last stand, with just nineteen minutes remaining in his top-flight career, Mark van Bommel was, some would say fittingly, sent off, following a second yellow card for a poor challenge on Twente winger Dušan Tadić, who was quicker, smarter and playing an entirely different brand of football. The sight of a true great taking a long walk of shame, head bowed in resignation, tears forming, defensive grin masking utter rage, was one of the saddest I have encountered in all my years watching football. A most wonderful era in the history of our game, indeed my life, drew to a close.

On 12th May 2013, Mark van Bommel retired from football, twenty-one years after his Fortuna debut, seven years after winning the European Cup, and three years removed from representing his nation in the World Cup final. The dream came true, in the most spectacular way imaginable.

The scale and poignancy of Mark’s success, and the positive impact he had on others, can be revealed by simply listing the stars, friends and former teammates who attended his testimonial, held, naturally, on a picturesque Eindhoven summer night: Ibrahimović, Sneijder and Ribéry; Robben, Kuyt and Nilis; Cocu, Kežman and Overmars; Muller, Makaay and Gomes; Stam, Depay and van Bronckhorst. All came to shower with gifts and platitudes a most remarkable footballer, a most remarkable man.

Nowadays, having slipped quietly from the radar, Mark van Bommel can be found teaching kids the tricks of his trade. An aspiring coach already in possession of a UEFA B License, he can be found working within the Dutch national youth setup and at Jong PSV, giving back to the clubs, and the game, that gave him so much.

One day, I hope to see Mark coaching in Europe or at PSV, so as to write another tale into his most incredible story. If he can cajole from others even half the skill, heart and desire so prominent in his journey, van Bommel will be a mighty fine coach. I wish him, my most spectacular hero, every success, and I thank him for the smiles, the glory and the memories.

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