Rutgerus Johannes Martinus van Nistelrooij, alias Ruud van Nistelrooy, has almost total recall of every goal he has ever scored. He says of one strike he made as a youngster in Holland, when he beat the keeper with a 60-yard-drive: “I remember the ground with all the people celebrating and the loudspeaker saying. “Goal – Ruud van Nistelrooy!” Then it went quiet and I could hear people talking in the stands about what I’d just done. It was unreal. I just hit it…” he adds, his eyes lighting up as he relives the kill.
Click on the picture to see Ruud at Real Madrid, takes you to YouTube.
How does it feel when you score?
It’s the ultimate. When the ball hits the net, its wow! Sometimes I celebrate a goal in training because its so nice. Some strikers say scoring is like a drug, you get addicted.
Does anything else compare?
When something nice happens involving your family, you get a rush of happiness, but it’s a different kind of happiness. That’s why I can tell you every goal I’ve scored. Its like when you hare a song and think: “hey that was when I was with my mates in Spain when I was 17.” You remember a goal because the feeling sticks in your mind.
Even as a boy, scoring was something that you savored…
I used to hate playing without nets because the experience was incomplete. You need to see the ball hit the back of the net and hear the sound it makes. When I was young, I always went to my local stadium to practice because they had big goals. The groundsman would come hunting for me. I’d have to climb back over the fence and run off.
Do you feel incomplete if you don’t score?
Its not enough just to score. Being a complete striker is a big goal. OK, some things don’t get as much recognition as a goal, but they bring me satisfaction. That said, if I play well but don’t score, there’s something missing.
How do you cope with missing a chance?
Its not a problem while the game is still on. I think, “ I’ll score the next one.” But when the referee blows and I haven’t scored, then I go back to the chance and think and think. It can drive me crazy. I go home and watch the game on telly and analyze things until I find out why I missed. Then, I’m ok.
You said that if you miss a penalty, you challenge yourself to score in open play…
I do. The funny thing is that I’ve done it 4 times. Even when I missed against arsenal [in the 90th minute of a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in September 2003], I challenged myself. I had one minuet I had to score…but there wasn’t time. After the game I went I home I felt so bad. I kept replying the penalty in my head and then it struck me that , even with only a minute left, I was ready to hunt for the next opportunity. That made me feel better.
A striker puts himself on the line like no other player does, with the possible exception of goalkeepers. You once said that strikers were as crazy as goalkeepers. Is that what you meant?
Its their single mindedness I recognize. Its funny – every position has certain characteristics. You can walk on to a training ground and pick out people by their personality; he must be a fullback, he must be a striker.
Is being a striker lonely?
I am a social person, but sometimes I just have to get away. That’s the strikers mentality. I don’t worry: “what will the lads think?” I am confident about being who I am.
When did you first play as striker?
Strangely, I was a central midfielder until I was 19, I had to join the attack and come back and defend. I can’t believe that now! In my second year in the first team of FC Den Bosch, the coach said: “lets put you up front and teach you to play with your back to goal,” I’d always scored from midfield, so they thought that if I didn’t have to do all the other running, I might score more.
You say you had a lot to learn, but what strikers tools did you already possess?
I have a light touch. When I get the ball I can touch it into space first time. This gives me a moment to do my next thing. Also, I’ve always had good movement. When I was 15, my coaches made me play in the under 18’s. it means I had to cope against much bigger competition. There is only one way to do that: use your head.
Teammates at Den Bosch say you missed because you were so eager.
Yeah, I wanted to score beautiful goals, a chip or something special.. often, it dint work and then I’d try something even better…I was stubborn.
So what happened?
When I was at Heerenveen, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit came to watch training and I wanted to impress them. I tried a chip that hit the crossbar, and it felt good because eit looked nice. But they said: “ if you want trophies, the ball needs to be in the net. It doesn’t matter how…” that was the first time I realized what you need to be a striker. So I stopped trying to be beautiful and thought only of being good. Gullit and Rijkaard said there’s only one thing that counts: the goal that you score. If you play well but don’t score. Nothing will be written about you.
Foppe de Haan was also important. He says he taught you to be “like a lion waiting in the sun.”
Ha. I know what he meant. I used to try to do to much. Sometimes, a striker has to step out of the game, get on the shoulder of the defender so they don’t know he's there.
How do you lose a defender?
Its about being clever. You can move between the center back and the full back, or between the center backs, so they don’t know who’s marking you. Or you drop towards the midfield and they decide whether to let you go ro follow you.
You’ve always been clever about wandering offside and then coming back just at the right time…
When you move towards the goal and the defenders see you behind them, they get uncomfortable and come back. You can gain 20 extra yards to to play in.
When you receive the ball, is the technique different in the box than in other areas?
Yes, because your second might be a shot. Wherever I am I try to touch the ball a maximum of 2 or 3 times.
You don’t get caught on your heels often.
No. if you do, its 50-50 with the defender. Some players are very good at it. I’ve got to be moving when I receive the ball
You seem to side-foot most of your shots…
My shot is more accurate with some bend on it. So when I try to finish. I bend the round the goalkeeper or whip it into the other corner of the goal at the last minute.
How do you practice finishing?
Ian rush used to work on putting the ball into the side of the net inside the goal! When I shot across the goalkeeper, I always aim for the side net. That is sort of the ultimate – when the ball bends into the side net. Perfect. But, in training I practice other finishes, so that if I face a situation in a game. I’m not like: “Ooh, what’ll I do?” my biggest need apart, from fitness, is to maintain my feel of the ball. Before training I’m always doing little touches. Keeping the ball up. Every day you want to do a million touches, as many as you can do, so your feeling for the ball is rock solid.
Sports psychologists think footballers develop greater peripheral vision. Does that help?
You take a picture, seeing, but also reacting to what you see. But a picture only captures one moment and the game doesn’t stay like that, so you are totally alert. If the picture changes, there’s another decision.
What goes through your mind when you are facing a goalkeeper.
How I’m going to score. What’s the angle? Where’s the keeper? At the last moment, I decide.
You’ve said you spend the whole game thinking, but in that moment, do you have to you empty your mind?
Yeah. At your best, you’re so in the moment, nothing else is there. Confidence is feeling comfortable enough at the vital moment to switch everything off. You often get into trouble when you let thoughts creep in.
After joining Manchester United you scored penalty after penalty. Then you missed three in a row, including the notorious one against Arsenal. Why?
Its in the mind. You miss one and then you worry about the next one. In my bad run, I told myself: “bloody hell, it must go in once.” As soon as one did, things went back to how they did before.
Would it be fair to say that you can be ruthless?
It’s a big part of being a striker, killer instinct. When I look back at the important moments of my life, I see that they are when I fought my way through a challenge.
Where does this hard edge come from?
My mums dad. He was a footballer, too. And he had this temper. When I’m home, the old men in the local café say they see him when they see me.
It’s said that you were to angry as a youth.
I was. I did silly things, but I think you can only learn by falling flat on your face and that’s what happened to me. I don’t want to get rid of that part of my personality. It has to be directed properly, but I need it. I know I can go to far sometimes when I’m trying to win.
Yeah, but what’s to far? If its within the rules, I think you can go as far as you like.
That’s quite a simple form of motivation…..
Every game, you want to succeed. That’s the combination that makes a fire in me. The records I’ve broken are nice, but they are only moments in my career. My only target is to get the maximum from myself in every game.
Does your killer instinct come out in any other area of your life?
No, not even in a traffic jam. Ive never had a fight or anything like that. But in a game you don’t have time. Then I become that other person.