In the winter window of 2009, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar followed a couple of his compatriots and Oranje teammates to Madrid, but, six months later, he was forced to leave Los Blancos. In a tale of pecking order and squad status, the striker’s time in Spain was cut short, not by the club, but himself.
At the age of 25, Huntelaar was a full-fledged Dutch international with a golden touch in front of goal. He’d netted three times in two cup finals with Ajax, picked up the Eredivisie’s player of the season award and earned two golden boots in the Netherlands’ top flight. Despite being one of the youngest players in the Ajax squad, Huntelaar was made club captain by new boss Marco Van Basten for the 2008/09 season. A prolific start to the campaign was halted by an ankle injury in November.
Meanwhile, a struggling Real Madrid were going through a dismal run of results, losing four of their next five La Liga games. A 4-3 defeat at the hands of Sevilla proved to be Bernd Schuster’s last as he was replaced by Juande Ramos. In desperate need of something to cheer for, Los Blancos installed their hopes in the underwhelming arrivals of Lassana Diarra, Dani Parejo and Julien Faubert from the Premier League. They then paid around £20m to Ajax for the services of Huntelaar to add to the firepower already being provided by Raul and Gonzalo Higuain.
It took five substitute appearances before Huntelaar found his goal-scoring touch, notching his first for his new club against Sporting Gijon. Even by that stage, the Madridstas were starting to grumble about their new striker. With Madrid backed into a corner by UEFA rules, Huntelaar was left out of Ramos’s Champions League squad as they were knocked out emphatically by Liverpool.
“That’s how it works, it’s football. [Real Madrid] need you or they don’t,” Huntelaar told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf this week. A final return of seven goals in 20 games, mostly from the bench, isn’t exactly a bad ratio, but things were about to change at the club. Former president Florentino Perez was elected in for a second term in office, over three years after the end of his first. He sacked Ramos, hired Mauricio Pellegrini and brought in Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema.
“At a certain moment, everybody had to leave, including the coach, technical director and chairman,” the Dutchman said. “They don’t really bother about a million more or less.”
With a wealth of attacking talent jumping the queue in the squad, Huntelaar decided that leaving was the right option for his game time and, ultimately, his career.
“I could have stayed for a couple of years, but, for me, the sporting part was the most important thing,” he said. “In the end, I also noticed the club took a different turn, so it wasn’t very interesting for me to stay.”
Tonight, Huntelaar is part of the Ajax ranks looking to shock the 13-time European champions as Santiago Solari and his men visit the Johan Cruyff Arena in the last 16. Like during his time at the Bernabeu, Huntelaar usually begins the 90 minutes on the sidelines. However, with a wealth of experience under his belt, don’t be surprised to see the marksman make the difference against his former employers.