Klaas-Jan Huntelaar: Will he stay or will he go?
Posted on April 11th, 2012
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made it home a little quicker than usual last Thursday night. His commute from Gelsenkirchen to Angerlo across Germany’s border with the Netherlands usually takes him about an hour. But this time when the Schalke striker stepped out of his car and looked at his watch, he realized he’d done it in closer to 45 minutes.
Huntelaar hadn’t intentionally floored it down the autobahn. He isn’t a speed freak jumping red lights as his old Ajax teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic revealed himself to be in his biography. Huntelaar by contrast once drove a VW camper van to training at De Toekomst, a reminder of his childhood camping holidays with his family near Bitburg when he’d eat steak frites and maybe share a beer with his dad if he were lucky.
A leisurely ride along the scenic route seems to be more his kind of thing, not the fast and the furious. Yet on this occasion, Huntelaar was frustrated and, as he admitted in an interview with Bild, he didn’t calm down until he saw his kids. His mind had been on the road but it was elsewhere too. The events of a few hours earlier kept replaying in his head.
Schalke had lost the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final 4-2 at home to Athletic Bilbao. They had been 2-1 up by virtue of a brace from their old-stager Raúl. His second goal, a dipping volley angled into the corner from the edge of the penalty area, was worthy of winning any match. Except there was still half an hour to play and Bilbao weren’t done yet.
Fernando Llorente equalized, Óscar de Marcos punished a mistake from Schalke’s fourth choice `keeper Mathias Schober and then Iker Muniain delivered the coup de grâce on the counter-attack in added time to turn the tables on their hosts.
It was an especially hard defeat to swallow. Huntelaar thought he’d got his team back on level terms minutes before Muniain struck when he hit a fine volley of his own from outside the box. But unlike Raúl’s effort, his struck the woodwork. The chance was gone and so were Bilbao, as they went up the pitch and landed what many believe to be, even ahead of the second leg at San Mames, a definitive knock-out blow.
Whatever happens tomorrow night, Huntelaar shouldn’t reproach himself too much. To give the tabloid headline writers their due, he has, with few exceptions in the current campaign, been nothing short of “World Klaas.”
On Sunday, he again ensured Schalke got a meaningful result, converting a late penalty to snatch a 1-1 draw away to mid-table Hoffenheim. It meant his side pulled that little bit further away from fourth placed Borussia Mönchengladbach and makes qualification for next year’s Champions League look more and more like a formality.
What was more remarkable, however, was that as Huntelaar preserved his status as the Bundesliga’s joint top scorer with Bayern Munich’s Mario Goméz on 23 goals, this was also his 41st in 40 games in all competitions this season.
Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can boast better strike-rates in Europe. If they didn’t make it all look so casual, breaking one record after another with consummate effortlessness, then maybe Huntelaar’s achievements would be seen for what they are: extraordinary by any normal yardstick.
He is approaching Schalke’s best ever single-season scoring total in the Bundesliga, an honor held by the great Klaus Fischer, who while also making stunning bicycle kicks his trademark, found the net 29 times for the club in the 1975-76 season. “He has my blessing,” Fischer told Die Welt. “If he stays in good form and scores a lot more goals, Schalke will definitely be in the Champions League. This is what’s important for the club, not my record.”
Huntelaar has rediscovered himself at Schalke. Before relocating to Gelsenkirchen 18 months ago, he’d lost his way. Half a season at Real Madrid was complicated by joining the club mid-term. He was ineligible to play in the Champions League after featuring in the UEFA Cup with Ajax, an oversight for which his new employers were culpable, and to make matters worse there was regime change later that summer. Florentino Pérez replaced Ramon Calderon as the club’s president and Huntelaar didn’t figure in his plans.
He was sold to AC Milan, but found himself marginalized again, citing “politics” for his lack of playing time. Fan favorite Pippo Inzaghi was still in favor, Marco Borriello was playing himself into the Italy squad and Alexandre Pato was the darling of Leonardo, a coach with whom Huntelaar had little chemistry, partly because he was often played out of position out-wide. While there was the distinct possibility things might work out differently under new boss Max Allegri the following season, the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic put paid to that and he joined Schalke for £12.3m.
He has no regrets. Huntelaar got his “revenge” over Leonardo when Schalke eliminated Inter from the Champions League this time last year. But that aside, he believes his experiences in Spain and in particular Italy made him stronger physically and mentally. The 28-year-old added things to his game and rejects the notion that he is nothing more than a fox in the box, even though according to the stats provided by Opta-backed think-tank Who Scored, all of Huntelaar’s goals in the Bundesliga this season, the four left-footers and 13 right-footers, the six headers and other half a dozen penalties, have come in the penalty area. “I like to be a ball-playing forward,” he claims. “I like to move. I work a lot for the team.”
Exhibit One in this case is his part in a wonderful move against Stuttgart a couple of months ago, when Julian Draxler exchanged a one-two with Raúl then another with Huntelaar. The combination unlocked their opponent’s defence and Schalke scored one of the best team goals of the season.
Convincing Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk that he should start ahead of Robin van Persie on that basis will not be easy. Huntelaar was the most prolific player in qualifying for Euro 2012 and is only 10 international goals away from overtaking Patrick Kluivert as his country’s all-time top scorer. It’s odd isn’t it how this might actually count against Huntelaar.
Goalscoring on its own has never been considered enough to deserve the status of a great player in Holland. The prolific are not always proficient when seen through Dutch eyes. To find their place in football’s pantheon, a striker must be technical and tactical, like Marco van Basten or Dennis Bergkamp. He can’t be the brainless bull at the gate. He must achieve something by thinking.
If that sounds picky, then spare a thought for Ruud Geels. The strawberry blonde centre-forward was the Eredivisie top scorer on a record five occasions and ended his career with 266 goals after playing for Feyenoord, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, a total greater than that achieved by Johan Cruyff and only bettered by Willy van der Kuijlen.
He was a superb header of the ball and his astonishing leap in Ajax’s 6-0 thrashing of Feyenoord back in 1975 is something to behold. But Geels was a specialist and in that sense his critics thought of his game as limited. “He was a great goalscorer, but nothing more,” recalled teammate Jan Mulder. “He had no passing, no dribbling. In the game, he didn’t do much.”
Holding the same opinion of Huntelaar is harsh to say the least and if the Netherlands aren’t prepared to guarantee him a starting place in their team then Schalke certainly are for the foreseeable future. A new contract proposal said to be worth £6.5m a season is a mark of their respect for Huntelaar and shows how much the club wants to keep him beyond his current deal, which is due to expire in 2013. Raúl is even expected to either be forsaken or to take a big pay cut when his agreement comes up for renewal in the summer, as Schalke look to make Huntelaar an offer he can’t refuse.
By now alerted to a clause in his existing paperwork which would allow him to leave the club if an offer in excess of €20m is received, there are no shortage of parties interested in luring Huntelaar away from the Veltins Arena. He is weighing up his options. “There will be time to gather my thoughts after the season,” Huntelaar said. “Before then, I want to focus on scoring goals and not let myself be distracted at the European Championship.”
Schalke have a good hand in this poker game. There’s the prospect of Champions League football at a club where he is the star. Any success they have will be his and that’s an important factor. “If I were to win [on a team’s bench], I wouldn’t feel involved, therefore I wouldn’t feel like I’d actually won anything,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport last November.
Asked about reported interest from Manchester United, Huntelaar replied: “I have heard about it, but no one has called and it’s not me they have to talk to. United are a fantastic club with a fantastic striker, Rooney, one of the best. But if I had to go there and repeat the Milan situation, thanks, but I’d prefer to stay where I am, where I have been made happy.”
Mindful not to make another wrong career choice, Huntelaar knows he is onto a good thing at Schalke. He can live in the family village back in the Netherlands and still play for the club. “I believe that the well-being factor will play a role in his decision and he is very close to his Dutch home here with Schalke,” club president Clemens Tonnies told Sport1 TV.
Huntelaar can feather his nest or flee it again. It’s up to him. Whether his stay at Schalke is temporary or permanent, one thing’s for sure: he has been a Klaas act.
This article first appeared on The Score