Real Madrid Dutch players

Los Oranje: Remembering when Real Madrid went Dutch mad in the late ’00s

Barcelona is, traditionally, the Spanish home for Dutchies. From Cruyff and Neeskens in the ’70s to De Jong and Cillessen today, many from the Netherlands have made the Camp Nou their home. For a brief period in the late noughties, though, Real Madrid changed this. 

In February 2006, Florentino Perez stepped down as president of Real Madrid, saying that the club needed a new direction. Five months later, Ramon Calderon was voted in to replace him and was keen to move away from Perez’s Galacticos and make the club his own.

How would he do this? Well, by painting Los Blancos orange, signing five of the biggest and best Dutch players around. Oh, and Royston Drenthe.

Ruud ‘Van Gol’ gets the ball rolling

Calderon kicked off his revolution almost immediately with the signing of Ruud van Nistelrooy from Manchester United. After establishing himself as one of the best goalscorers around, the 30-year-old had fallen out with Sir Alex Ferguson and wanted to join the Spanish giants. Real Madrid took advantage of the situation to snap him up for just £13.5million.

It would prove to be a masterstroke from the new president. Van Nistelrooy scored a hat-trick in his second league game against Levante before scoring four in one game just a few months later. His form was so good in fact that he was keeping Ronaldo out of the side, although the Brazilian did admittedly have some, erm, fitness issues at that point.

He maintained his form throughout the season to end with 33 goals in 47 games in all competitions and earn the very imaginative nickname “Van Gol”. Not quite up there with O Fenomeno, is it?

His 25 in the league, including an absolute beauty against Valencia that ranks among the best of his career, were enough to give Los Blancos their first league title in four years.

Calderon’s first season as president had been an irrefutable success, largely due to the exploits of a Dutchman he signed, so the Spaniard presumably thought, why not just do the same again? Except this time, he went a step further and signed three of them.

Clockwork orange

When Calderon became president, he promised to sign Arjen Robben, and a year later, he fulfilled that promise. The winger joined from Chelsea for £30million, while the Spanish club raided the Eredivisie to get Wesley Sneijder and Royston Drenthe for £25million and £12million respectively.

In the space of one transfer window, three of the Netherlands’ biggest talents were now to be found at the Bernabeu. Yes, Drenthe really was one of the nation’s biggest talents.

Robben missed the start of the season through injury, but Sneijder and Drenthe went straight into the starting XI, with Drenthe scoring on his debut against Sevilla in the Super Cup and Sneijder getting a late winner against Atletico Madrid in the first league game of the season.

Sneijder then scored three in his next two games, including a free-kick against Villareal that ensured his club wasn’t missing David Beckham too dearly. Van Nistelrooy, meanwhile, had carried his form over from the previous season. By Christmas, the pair had 17 goals and 12 assists between them and Real were top of the league.

The turn of the year saw Robben finally return to full fitness, and it didn’t take him long to get in on the act. At the start of February, in his third league start of the season, he scored his first goal and got two assists in a 7-0 win, quickly joining Sneijder and Van Nistelrooy as key players.

Real Madrid went on to win their second consecutive league title, with the Dutch quartet getting a total of 37 goals and 24 assists between them in all competitions.

It’s fair to say that without their contributions, the season could well have had a different outcome. Well, maybe they could have done without Drenthe, but the other three were great.

Double Dutch, Pep prevails

That summer, the Netherlands lit up Euro 2008 with 3-0 and 4-1 demolitions of Italy and France. Sneijder, Robben and Van Nistelrooy all shined, alongside Rafael van der Vaart, so he too was of course signed by Real Madrid. He joined from Hamburg for what seemed a bargain at just over £10million.

His start to life in Madrid was far from ideal, though. He started both legs of the Super Cup against Valencia and saw straight red in the return fixture. Thankfully it proved not to be costly as his compatriot Van Nistelrooy scored three goals over the two matches to give the club their only trophy of the season.

With Sneijder missing the start of the league campaign through injury, Van der Vaart was thrust straight back into the starting XI after his suspension and scored his first La Liga goal at the first time of asking.

Two matches later, he scored a hat-trick against Sporting Gijon, kicking things off with this filthy backheel. Oh Rafa, you cheeky b*stard.

That game also saw Robben get a goal and two assists, while Van Gol had scored seven in his first 10 domestic and European starts. Just weeks later, though, the veteran striker was ruled out for the season with a knee injury, derailing his side’s first half of the season.

Real Madrid lost of the 10 remaining games of 2008, including a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona who, managed by Pep Guardiola, were already storming to the title.

Changes were needed, so Calderon obliged by sacking manager Bernd Schuster and bringing in Juande Ramos. Oh, and he signed another Dutchman. Obviously.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a fox in the box much like Van Nistelrooy, had torn up the Eredivisie with Ajax and joined the Spanish giants at the start of January for around £20million. It was hoped The Hunter would be a long-term replacement for Van Nistelrooy who, with a severe injury at his age, looked unlikely to ever return to his previous level.

Ramos’ arrival had the desired impact, with the club winning 18 and drawing one of their first 19 league games in 2009. Robben thrived, getting six goals and two assists in a new right-wing role, which he’d turn out to be quite good in over the years. Huntelaar too looked good, scoring eight goals in 15 appearances.

Against any other opponent, this form would have probably taken Real Madrid to the top of the league, but Guardiola’s Barcelona were a different beast as they showed when they ended their rivals run by thrashing them 6-2 at the Bernabeu. This mentally destroyed Los Blancos, who lost their remaining four games to finish the season in second.

The club had endured it’s worst season in three years, and the Dutch contingent hadn’t helped. Robben could deem his campaign a success, but Van Nistelrooy missed it through injury while Sneijder and Van der Vaart, often jostling for the same position, struggled to find consistent form. Drenthe, meanwhile, had begun to become the Drenthe we know today.

Nevertheless, they were all happy at the club and were keen to bring back the glory days to the fans that were happy to have them. As it turns, most of them never got the chance.

The end of the Orange Age

In late January of that year, Calderon resigned as President and once the season was over, the man he replaced, Florentino Perez, returned to the helm of the club and quickly reintroduced his Galacticos policy.

First, the club broke the world transfer record to sign Kaka for £56million, and then did so again a few days later when Cristiano Ronaldo joined for £80million. Karim Benzema was also snapped up.

With a new playmaker, winger and striker joining, there was no room, or money, for Robben, Sneijder or Huntelaar. The former two were sold to Bayern Munich and Inter Milan respectively, where they both faired rather well. Huntelaar left for AC Milan after just over half a year in Madrid but, unlike his compatriots, struggled.

Van Nistelrooy wasn’t available to be signed due to his injury status, while Van der Vaart and Drenthe also ended up staying, but Van der Vaart was the only one to enjoy any kind of success in what would turn out to be the final season at the club for all three.

By the summer of 2011, there wasn’t a Dutchman to be seen in Madrid. A new-look team was enjoying success the club hadn’t seen in years and the Orange Era had gone down as a strange and relatively successful phase the club went through.

Real Madrid haven’t signed a Dutchman since and will almost certainly never have six on their books again, but we’re glad we got to see it once. Hala Los Oranje. It has a ring to it.

By Finley Crebolder

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