“Thierry Henry is an idol for me, I used to watch him a lot on the TV.”
It may be crazy to think now but the player who uttered those words was once considered another Henry in waiting. This player seemingly had the world at his feet but for one reason or another in never clicked.
Ryan Babel was born on December 19 1986 in Amsterdam. Like many in the city he grew up with a passion for football. At a young age he joined his local youth side SV Diemen before moving on to represent Fortius Amsterdam.
In 1997 he tried out for Ajax and a place in their famous youth academy. However despite making it as far as the first selection round his initial attempt proved unsuccessful. Undeterred Babel came back the following year and this time made his mark.
Blessed with fast and explosive pace coupled with lashings of skill alongside plenty of strength and just enough aggressiveness, Babel soon made a name for himself within the Ajax set up. At 15 his talent had developed to such a level that the club organised one-on-one sessions with Marco van Bastan for him.
Van Basten himself had only just qualified as a coach and the club felt the two together would bring out the best in one another. Whatever Babel did in these get together’s the former Dutch maestro was clearly impressed.
“He has all the potential to become the next Henry, the pace, the movement, finishing, feel for the game – it’s all there.”
That wasn’t all Van Basten continued to enthuse about this potential Dutch prodigy, “If he keeps developing and improving there is no saying what he might achieve.”
While Van Basten would eventually move on Babel stayed put. Two months after his 17th birthday he made his debut in the Ajax first team against ADO Den Haag. The Godenzone ran out comfortable four-nil winners on the day.
A new talented generation of Dutch players was also emerging around this timeframe that included the likes of Robben, Van Persie, Sjnieder, Van Dar Vaart and Huntelaar. Babel although younger than the rest was considered by many in the Netherlands to be at the forefront of a new golden generation.
13 months after his Ajax debut, Babel was making his first appearance for the national team. He soon became the countries youngest goal scorer in 68 years with a strike against Romania.
By the time the u21 European championship rolled around in 2007, Babel was an old hand at this international lark having already played 14 times for the senior side. Nonetheless he did his job for the under 21’s inspiring them to victory in the competition.
It wasn’t long before clubs with money to burn started sniffing around this prodigious talent. Rumours abound that Premiership side Arsenal were all set to make an offer. Babel himself even spoke about how it would be an honour to play under Arséne Wenger.
However he was forced to backtrack slightly on those remarks when in fact it was fellow English club Liverpool who agreed a deal with Ajax to sign him. Babel was Merseyside bound, in a deal that would see him join the Reds for a substantial fee in and around £11.5m.
The 2007/08 season his first in England started well for Babel. Former Reds defender and well known TV pundit Mark Lawrenson immediately compared him to another former Anfield great in the shape of John Barnes. Kenny Daglish was also said to be a fan.
Babel’s transition into the English game appeared to be progressing smoothly. He even won the clubs young player of the year in his first season for the club.
However scratch the surface and you soon found that all was not as cosy as it seemed. Babel struggled to command a starting spot week in week out and found himself quite often sprung from the bench rather than playing from the first minute each week.
Also being played out wide rather than down the middle as he preferred contributed to a growing frustration, “Benitez knows I like to play up front and hopefully one day he will give me a chance to play there.”
Try as he might though Babel failed to nail down that starting spot and the times he was given a chance to impress in his favoured striking role he flattered to deceive. With game time becoming patchy his development also began to stagnate.
Dropped from the Dutch squad for a Euro 2008 qualifier for oversleeping for a second time and also being fined £10,000 by the FA for posting a picture of Referee Howard Webb in a Man United jersey on his twitter page painted Babel in an unfavourable public light.
A perception emerged that he was someone who didn’t really care enough about his profession and was more interested in creating Rap music (He had a Dutch number one hit) and goofing off. All of this though could not have been further from the truth as Babel was extremely dedicated professional who always gave his all.
With the departure of Benitez from Liverpool, Babel was presented with another chance to get his career back on track. However the chance went a begging as he slipped further down the Reds pecking order. It even reached a point where David N’Gog was chosen in front of him.
Despite his troubles in England Babel continued to be called up to the Dutch squad, but injuries stunted his impact. In January 2011, after four hit and miss years on Merseyside, it came time for Babel to move on.
His career had taken a turn down a dark alley and he needed fresh impetus to get it back on the right course. The place he hoped he would find that spark was with Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. Who he joined for €8m.
Even though things may not have worked out as planned for him at Liverpool he continued to retain a fondness for the city and the clubs fans. He even continues to retain a house there. On leaving however he couldn’t resist a final parting shot a former manager Benitez.
“Rafa Benitez promised me a certain development, but very quickly he took away that promise and it was a totally different situation.” “I don’t think I ever played more than three times in a row.”
If Germany was to be the land of new opportunities for Babel, it proved a massive let down. Over a stop start year and a half Babel failed to make the desired impact. Playing 51 times scoring only six and in August 2012 he and the club agreed to terminate the rest of his contract.
By now his international career had also disintegrated into obscurity. He was part of the Dutch squad for the 2010 World Cup, but failed to make a single appearance as the Netherlands made it all the way to the final.
It had been an alarming decline for Babel who was still only in his mid-twenties at this stage. The World Cup in South Africa should have been his introduction to the world stage, yet he spent it all sitting on a bench.
In 2012 he returned home to Ajax signing a one year deal. Some saw the move as a step back but not Babel who was just delighted to be home, “Some people will see my 1 year deal with Ajax as a step back, but that’s not how I see it. This is a step in the right direction for me after a difficult period.”
Yet again though Babel’s fresh start proved a false dawn. He only managed nine starts in the league during his one season back. Making nowhere near the impact he hoped. He cited his wish to leave the younger generation come through as a reason for leaving.
Although his substantial wages must surely also have been a factor. The question of where to next for this mercurial talent quickly arose, England again, Italy, France maybe. In the end he plumped for the footballing outpost that is Turkey.
Now when we think of the Turkish league three clubs usually spring to mind, Galatasaray, Fenerbache and Besiktas. Babel joined neither of the three but instead signed for the unheralded Kasımpaşa. A team located in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul.
Still only 28 years of age Ryan Babel should be entering the peak of his powers, instead he is playing in the wilderness that is the Turkish Super Lig. There is still time for him to turn it all around and realise a fraction of his talent that he undeniably has. That time however shrinks considerably with each passing day.
Potential can only get you so far and nobody knows that better than Ryan Babel.
I don’t think I’ve shown my full potential yet, we can’t all be Lionel Messi even if we want to – RYAN BABEL
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