Saturday, September 20, 2008

More on Ryan Babel



Following on from our 'Ryan Babel: The Rapper' vids last week, here are a couple of very interesting articles on him from last year:

Towering Babel unawed by Liverpool's football temple
By Simon Kuper,
FT - Published: September 15 2007

Ryan Babel still lives alone in Liverpool - or accompanied only by the Lord, as he sees it - but he needs company. "We're still deciding whether my mother will join me, or my girlfriend," the footballer confides. "In Holland I hadn't moved out of my parents' home yet. That's a big step." Can he boil an egg? "No, that doesn't work."

Though Liverpool paid £12m for him this summer, the Dutch striker still seems something of a naïf. Above that big body is a little boyish face, with slight buckteeth and the faintest beard. His hair is shaven into a neat square.

Babel is 20, but you would guess him to be younger. Talking in the Dutch national team's beach hotel beside the dunes the other day, he offered a refreshingly innocent view of England and its football - a game he has all the qualities to conquer.

Babel was born in Amsterdam, but his accent reveals family origins in Surinam, the former Dutch colony on South America's northern tip. There are only 70,000 Amsterdam Surinamese, but they produce more footballers per capita than possibly any other ethnic group in the world. Their stars - Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids - would staff half a world 11, and behind them are many other Dutch internationals and hundreds of good professionals.

Babel joined Ajax Amsterdam aged 11. Everyone saw his gifts - the big kid who moved like a gymnast and did wonders with the ball - but he rarely scored. Nobody could quite work out what he was for. Criticism was unceasing. Two Ajax youth coaches told me about a kid by the weird name of Babel, who, when the legend Marco van Basten had arrived to help coach his team, remained entirely blasé. "Aren't you pleased Marco has come?" one coach asked him. Babel just shrugged beneath his baseball cap. "Mwaaa," he said.

Nonetheless, by 18 he had become the youngest man to score for Holland since the war. Yet when Van Basten, by this time Holland's manager, inquired after his career plans, Babel replied: "I'm going to go into music, coach." A devoted rapper, he has approximately 5,000 songs on his iPod.

In the beach hotel, Babel recalls the chastisements of Ajax's coach Henk ten Cate, another Surinamer. If Babel got too intricate trying to dribble past a defender, Ten Cate would scream: "Ryan, you're the fastest in Holland, dammit! Just kick the ball and run."

Babel never became a key player for Ajax, but over this summer he improved quickly. "Purely because of confidence," he told me. In June he led Holland to victory in the European Under-21 Championships, during which the Dutch football journal Hard Gras noted this vignette: Babel, at a gymnastics training session, standing on a balancing bar with a ball on his foot.

Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's manager, had had Babel watched since the boy was 16. This summer Benitez signed him. Entering Liverpool's legendary Anfield stadium, Babel was unawed. "At first it did nothing to me. It still doesn't." Doesn't he like legendary grounds? "It doesn't matter to me. I feel happiest if the stadium looks decent." He does admit to touching the legendary "This is Anfield" sign before taking the field, but only because his team-mates do.

His bigger priority in Liverpool was finding a church. "I drove past a couple, but in principle you can't understand people in Liverpool. It's a very strange dialect."

Stranger still were British taboids. Benitez, who is "like an uncle", instructed him: "If they ask something, they want to hear A, but you think B, and you say C."

In training, Babel noticed that Liverpool's players didn't berate each other as was customary at Ajax. If he screamed, "Where's your control?" everyone looked at him uncomprehendingly. Another surprise was how much Liverpool practised defending. "We are very compact, and then we come out with two, three passes, like madmen, and shoot."

Yet judging by his first, good performances, he has Benitez's licence to run with the ball. "Of course. When it comes to attacking in matches, he has said almost nothing to me. I have tasks only when we defend."

At Ajax, Babel had learned his trademark but ineffective "hip shot", struck from underneath the body with almost no backlift, from Gaston Sangoy, an obscure Argentine reserve. At Liverpool, he imitates a more celebrated team-mate. "I just use Steven Gerrard as my shooting coach. He really can shoot."

Physically, surely, Babel is already complete? "A big body doesn't mean you're strong. I understand from Robin van Persie at Arsenal that Julio Baptista isn't strong at all, even though he's a massive guy." Is Babel strong? "I feel strong."

Are Liverpool, top of the league, strong enough to win their first title since 1990? "At first, when people said we had to be champions, I thought, 'Well, I don't know about that.' But now we're growing." Not half as fast as Babel is, though.


Ryan Babel top of the class
Liverpool’s Dutch striker is learning fast after a quiet start to his Merseyside career and hopes to make Tottenham pay today
Jonathan Northcroft,
Sunday Times - October 7, 2007

The pupils of Shorefields Technology College speak a total of 26 first languages – and that list does not include Scouse. It is one of Liverpool’s most multicultural schools and its catchment area, Dingle and Toxteth, among the UK’s most deprived. A class of 12-and 13-year-olds have a special visitor. “Babel, will you sign this?” “Can you have a kickabout with me mates, Babel?” they say, not quite believing enough of Ryan Babel’s presence to use his Christian name.

But these kids are sharp. Their teacher asked them to think of questions before the Liverpool player arrived at the college and a hand shot up. “How much does he earn a week?” Up went another. “I want to know what car he’s got, bet it’s a Porsche Boxster.” The class are nonplussed when informed this most grounded £11.5m budding superstar tools about in a club Volkswagen Jetta.

Babel is about to get something fancier for his garage but it is obvious that he favours real life over celebrity life. He moves easily among the children, at 20 closer to them in age than he is to Jamie Carragher, and converses shyly but on their level. He is here to take part in a workshop on racism run by the Anthony Walker Foundation. Anthony was murdered in a racially motivated attack in Merseyside in 2005 and his charismatic sister, Dominique, talks about her brother before dividing the class into discussion groups. Babel goes round them taking part and, carefully, completes a worksheet. Two hours of what should be posttraining rest time have gone by the time he leaves, but he is smiling.

“It was important for me to come today because I also suffered racism when I was younger, so I know the feeling. I think Liverpool did a great job to pick me to help with this campaign. I was able to tell the kids about my experiences and how to deal with them,” the Dutch forward says. “There was racism towards me in school and, actually, I was rough enough to say something back. I wasn’t scared and spoke out, in a normal way, and after, it wasn’t a problem.

“In the UK you have a lot of different cultures and in Holland it’s the same. Right now, Muslims have the worst time of all. The politics are very against them. Before the Muslims it was Surinamese people – my community – which was having the trouble.”

Babel was raised in De Bijlmer, a tough estate in Amsterdam and home to many of the city’s 70,000 immigrants from Surinam, a former Dutch colony bordering Brazil. No community on the planet, per capita, produces so many top footballers: Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids sprang from there. Babel is seen as latest in the distinguished line. He made his debut for Ajax shortly after his 17th birthday and at 18 became Holland’s youngest international goalscorer in 68 years. The great Dutch striker Marco van Basten was his mentor. “When he was my trainer in the Ajax reserve team he told me small things a normal, regular trainer wouldn’t teach you, details to improve my game,” Babel says. “He was a striker and I’m a striker also and because he was such a smart player he could teach me a lot about the mental side.

“He was a killer in the box. In the beginning my game was not about scoring. My goal was just to dribble and give some nice action and I was satisfied but he made me think, ‘Hey, you’re a striker, you have to score’. After a practice game he’d ask how many I’d scored? I’d say zero. He’d say, ‘But you’re a striker’. That changed the way I think and was good for the learning process.”

Babel’s natural athletic speed (his sister, Janice, is an emerging sprinter who hopes to go to the Olympics) led Ajax to play him on the flank, the position he has occupied for Holland and since joining Liverpool. His balance, touch and physique have drawn comparisons with Thierry Henry, and the hype is sometimes wearying. “To come is easy but to stay is more difficult. It became very hard in Holland because the expectation levels from the crowd and the media were so high. Every week I had to play very good and it did not always happen like that,” he says.

Henk Ten Cate, the Ajax manager, would tell him to clear his mind and “just kick the ball and run”. Ten Cate is now wanted by Chelsea to work as assistant to Avram Grant. “He’s a very good trainer. If he goes, I think he will put Chelsea back on top. He’s also from Surinam,” Babel says. “He can be clever, he can be easy, he can be hard, depending on what’s needed. He’s just a good manager of players who can work in a lot of different situations.”

At Anfield, Babel is finding out about expectation all over again. He says today’s game with Tottenham is crucial, given Liverpool’s curious slump since beating Toulouse 4-0 and Derby 6-0 consecutively. Babel, with clever control and icy finishing, would have pleased even Van Basten with the goal he scored – his first in England – in the rout of Derby but he has not played a full 90 minutes since, nor has he been involved at all in Liverpool’s past three matches.

Another of Rafael Benitez’s selection mysteries? “I’m relaxed,” smiles Babel. “I knew before I signed the contract he was working with rotation and it was up to me to go with that or not. I’m trying to work very hard every day and I’m ready if he needs me.

“Right now, I just see the beginning in terms of how I want to develop as a player. I see this as a learning year. In Ajax I grew up playing with 4-3-3, I only know that system. Liverpool is something new. I was a left-winger at Ajax, here I’m a winger and a midfielder, and have to do more defensively.

“I’m learning a lot about what the movements are in each position in midfield and up front, and things seem to be going faster than I’d imagined. After, I will try and focus on one position. I prefer to play as a striker and hopefully I’ll get the chance one day. And I will take it, definitely.”

In training he studies others. “Alonso, Sissoko, Crouch, Kuyt . . . their movements and visions. Gerrard is great to watch if you want to learn how to shoot properly and I’ve already asked him a couple of times how he can manage to keep the ball low from long distance. Torres is good for seeing his movement and his finishing. Rafa is very patient and talks a lot about my game.”

His education about Merseyside is enhanced by participating in Liverpool’s widespread community work, the Shorefields visit having been organised as part of the Premier League’s Creating Chances programme.

One thing is annoying Babel. In a recent profile – published in the Financial Times of all places – a journalist alleged that he would rather have been a rapper than a footballer and he was struggling to cope in his new flat, unable even to boil an egg. The only thing the article got right about his private life was, deeply religious, he is still looking for the right church in Liverpool. Babel’s girlfriend has just moved over and is about to begin a university course in the city and Benitez need not worry about nutrition. “I can take care of myself,” he says. “That is the first thing my mum taught me before I went out of the door.”

Ryan Babel, as the wide-eyed kids of Shorefields heard, stands on his own two feet.

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