Since his departure in 2004, it has always seemed inevitable that Robin van Persie would return to Rotterdam to finish his career. The only question was: which club would he go to?
He left his homeland as a promising 20-year-old to become his nation’s all-time top scorer and the best striker in the Premier League for Arsenal and Manchester United, but a mutual love with both Feyenoord and Excelsior has been a constant throughout.
Although he rose through Feyenoord’s youth system from the age of 13 to win the UEFA Cup in his first season of professional football, his journey began when a precocious five-year-old’s impressive technique convinced coaches at Excelsior to welcome him.
Van Persie has declared his heart belongs to both clubs at various times and constantly talked of a return, as Dutch players are prone to do.
While Excelsior dream of seeing the local boy return to sport their colours in front of the stand they named after him, it is Feyenoord who are set to give him a romantic swansong as they draw closer to his signing.
Following the glorious title-winning end to Dirk Kuyt’s career, Feyenoord turned to the 34-year-old as the next fan favourite to take over as the big presence in the dressing room. Although their attempts to sign him in the summer were derailed by Fenerbahce, their desire to bring Van Persie home has only been enhanced by a disastrous first half of the season in which they’re 14 points adrift of Eredivisie leaders PSV.
Feyenoord’s general director Jan de Jong said on Tuesday that a personal agreement with the forward had been struck, and he has now been freed from his contract with the Turkish giants.
“As long as there is no signature under the contract, anything can happen,” technical director Martin van Geel said.
“He has a huge reputation among the other players, and we expect him to play a leading role, as Dirk Kuyt did, but he will fulfil that role differently.”
The Rotterdam giants are getting a very different player to the one that left to become an Arsenal legend in his youth. In some ways, that’s a good thing.
Although Van Persie was touted as one of the nation’s most promising players when he broke into the first team to play a role in their UEFA Cup triumph, the Dutch Young Player of the Year soon became known for his arrogance.
He had issues with coach Bert van Marwijk and things turned sour towards the end of his time there as he was dropped to the bench and had his head turned by an Arsenal approach in January 2004. He even flirted with a move to PSV before the switch to London in the summer.
The troublesome reputation would reappear later in his career, but Van Persie matured into a star and his mentality will be much different after his experience as a World Cup finalist and Premier League champion.
“Van Persie is no leader in words and gestures, but more in a footballing sense,” his former Netherlands team-mate Mark van Bommel said. “You must pay attention, he’ll amaze everyone with what he can do.
“He is a top professional, just like the others of that generation. Looking at what he has achieved, he can make younger players better. Even if it’s just in training.”
Feyenoord will be hoping to reap the reward on the field as well as off it, however, as Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men sit fifth in the table at the halfway point.
But what role he will play is uncertain. Although Feyenoord finished the year with 12 goals in two games, they have had trouble scoring this season. Still, Nicolai Jorgensen has the striker position nailed down after finishing 2017 with six goals from as many appearances.
Van Persie, then, is likely to slot in behind as an attacking midfielder at the expense of Jens Toornstra. From there he can link up with Jorgensen form a dangerous position and make use of space in and around the box.
He could even end up on the wing, and Van Bronckhorst may take time to work out where he can create the best chances.
“Another personality, a bit of freshness in a group can’t hurt and he is a great player,” coach and former Oranje colleague Van Bronckhorst said. “Robin van Persie brings something with him, something different from what we already have.
“Robin can play anywhere: as a striker, as a No.10, on the wings, and with him you’re always ensured competition in multiple positions, because he is a winner, I’m a supporter of that.”
They are eager to get him into the team, but the condition he will arrive in is a bit of a concern. His latest Super Lig season was cut short in September by another serious injury, but Feyenoord insist he is fit.
Even then, he is still a player on the decline. After a strong first season in Turkey, he started to lose his place in the team and was open to an early departure.
The national team have moved beyond him, too. Despite his 50 goals, he has featured for Netherlands just once in over two years as he was left out of their failed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Van Persie remains a strong link to a great period for Feyenoord. More than that, he is a connection to a golden generation of European football. He played alongside the likes of Van Bronckhorst, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and a host of other names. He starred for Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Louis van Gaal.
Now the Dutch icon can return home to Rotterdam, at the perfect time to prove he still has a lot to give and to reward feverish fan excitement after 13 and a half years away.