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Football fans all over the world raised their eyebrows when Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart signed for Hamburg SV in 2005. The Ajax Amsterdam starlet was only 22 at the time and had attracted attention from Europe’s biggest clubs, including AC Milan and Barcelona. Even his legendary compatriot Johann Cruyff wrote in his De Telegraaf newspaper column at the time "I don't know what to say about it or what Rafael van der Vaart is doing in Hamburg.”
The €5.5 million transfer was a success however, launching both player and club onto greater things. In his first season in Germany he helped guide HSV to the quarterfinal of the UEFA Cup, as well as playing an integral role in their third-place Bundesliga finish, which meant qualification for the Champions League.
After an injury-troubled start to the 2006/7 season, in which the team went out in the group stages of the Champions League (despite three goals from new captain vdV) and struggled in the Bundesliga, things picked up under new coach Huub Stevens. Eventually, van der Vaart finished as Hamburg’s top scorer as they went from second-to-last place in the table to seventh and qualification for the Intertoto Cup.
Almost inevitably, after another successful season in the north of Germany in 2007/8, transfer speculation again built around van der Vaart. The big move that had been anticipated three years earlier finally came as he switched to Spanish giants Real Madrid for €13 million. His open desire to leave may not have been endearing, but this tidy financial profit for the club only added to the legacy that the creative midfielder, now starring in the English Premier League for Tottenham Hotspur, left in the Free and Hanseatic City.