Robin van Persie with a point to prove, and not only to Manchester United
The Dutch striker has yet to provide a defining moment for his new club Fenerbahce
Fenerbahce coach Dick Advocaat and Robin van Persie ahead of Thursday night’s match. Photograph: Reuters
In 2012 “the little boy inside” told Robin van Persie to leave north London and head north. Van Persie listened and swapped Arsenal for Manchester United, playing an instrumental role in the club winning the Premier League title for an unprecedented 20th time.
Van Persie is back at Old Trafford on Thursday but this time in the navy blue and yellow colours of Fenerbahce and it will be interesting to see what type of reception the Dutch striker receives from the home supporters, many of whom must have been surprised when he left United for Turkey in July 2015. His arrival certainly came as a surprise for followers of the Yellow Canaries.
Turkish football is no stranger to extravagant welcoming parties for new signings but the arrival of Van Persie set a precedent. By the time of his arrival at the Sabiha Gokcen airport the party was in full swing. Thousands turned out to welcome the player to Istanbul. Flares were lit. The crowds had already been chanting his name for a good hour. Television channels were tracking his flight live on air. Once the private jet in which Van Persie arrived had landed, it was pandemonium. There was a carnival atmosphere. A sea of raucous supporters jumping up and down smothered in a thick clouds of colourful smoke from the flares, with some fans crowd-surfing in order to get to the front and grab a glimpse of their new star acquisition.
For Van Persie it came as a shock . “I have seen a lot over the years but I have never seen anything like this,” he told a TV crew at the time. “I hope that I’m going to make you happy. It’s an honour.”
The forward was a huge star in the Premier League but in his first evening in Istanbul he had reached a new level of cult status. It was love at first sight, but this story of romance also has a villain – the former Fenerbahce head coach Vitor Pereira felt it necessary to demonstrate his control over the team by showing he had the power to play and drop anybody. And that included Van Persie.
Pereira’s plan soon backfired as fans grew increasingly frustrated that Fernandão – who had been Super Lig’s top scorer the previous season for Bursaspor – locked down a starting spot ahead of Van Persie. To make matters worse, Pereira played a brand of football that was lacking in flair and attacking guile. After a summer of big spending – approximately £22.9m – and bringing in attacking talents such as Van Persie, Nani, Diego and Lazar Markovic, expectations were high. Fenerbahce had a squad most other teams in the league could only dream of, but they were not displaying that on the pitch.
In fairness to Pereira, the Portuguese was in charge of a side in transition, one newly built at great expense that required time to gel. Results-wise, Fenerbahce actually had a decent 2015-16 league season; they dropped just six points at home and finished second, beaten to the title by a Besiktas team that had been building up steam over the previous two seasons.
For Van Persie, however, often watching on from the substitutes bench, it had been a frustrating campaign. A few months in he said: “To be honest, I am not very happy at this moment. I was not happy that I started on the bench. I am fully fit, physically very well and able to play for 90 minutes. The only right answer I could give was with what I did: helping the team to get the victory.”
The Dutchman still managed to score 22 goals in all competitions and, in general, he settled well to life in Turkey. His son Shaqueel enrolled in the Fenerbahce academy and his wife Bouchra learned Turkish to the point she felt confident enough to give an interview to the media agency DHA in her new language. “We are happy in Istanbul as a family, it is a huge city like London,” she said. “Just as crowded, multicultural, with all the shops and a warmer climate.”
This season Van Persie has featured in five of Fenerbahce’s seven Super Lig fixtures, not to mention their two Europa League qualifiers and two Europa League group matches, scoring once. And this has come under a new manager after Pereira was sacked in August following the club’s defeat against Monaco in the Champions League qualifiers. Dick Advocaat came in and, having lost Nani to Valencia, signed Jeremain Lens, who played under the Dutchman at Sunderland, and the former Yellow Canaries striker Moussa Sow on loan from Al-Ahli in Dubai.
Another summer of transition has told on the pitch, with Fenerbahce sitting ninth in the Super Lig, eight points behind the joint leaders, Basaksehir, Besiktas and Galatasaray. But they arrive in Manchester in decent European form having taken four points from their opening two Group A fixtures. Van Persie is fit and almost certain to start.
Back in 1996, Elvir Bolic scored the winning goal in Fenerbahce’s 1-0 win against United at Old Trafford. Van Persie has yet to have a defining moment for his latest club and for the 33-year-old there could be no greater one than emulating Bolic and scoring against his old one on Thursday.