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Van Persie key for United in Romania

Robin van Persie has settled in well since making the move from Arsenal to United.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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This summer, three teams scuffled over the services of Robin van Persie, the one-time Arsenal striker who has already lit up Old Trafford. Would you believe there was a time when he’d just about run out of clubs that would take a chance on him?

When van Persie takes his position as striker for Manchester United’s second game in the UEFA Champions League against CFR Cluj on Tuesday (2:30 PM ET, live on FOX Soccer) he will do so as the prodigy fully matured into superstar. But the road was rocky.

Born to a sculptor and a painter who quickly divorced, van Persie was doted on by his parents. They hoped he too would become an artist. They imbued in him the notion that he was special, which was reinforced by an endless series of exceptions made for him throughout his life. At just 4, Excelsior allowed him into its youth academy, even though the minimum age was 5. He was too special to risk missing out on. When his youth sides won, say, 3-0, his father would grandly announce for all to hear that the game had ended van Persie: three; Opposition, zero.

Unsurprisingly, he proved a difficult child. Loitering on the working class streets of Rotterdam, he and chums like Mounir El Hamdaoui – now a striker for Fiorentina – found lots of soccer and lots of trouble. After joining Feyenoord’s academy at 13, he broke into the first team at 18. By the summer of 2004, he had both established himself as one of the brightest prospects in Europe and outstayed his welcome.

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Van Persie had bickered with his manager, Bert van Marwijk, upset the team elders with his brazen behavior and was forever being benched or relegated to the reserve team because of his egotistical antics. In the summer of 2004, Feyenoord was relieved to have found a taker for its problem child in Arsenal, settling for a puny fee of some $5 million, about half of what they had asked for. Of his time at Feyenoord, van Persie would later state: “I wasn’t being tested enough there.”

His early years at Arsenal weren’t so different those at Feyenoord. He wrecked his sports car and abandoned it by the side of the road, made rash tackles that got him sent off and spent two weeks in jail suspected of rape (an investigation later dismissed the case, saying there had been consent).

Gradually, van Persie matured. Manager Arsene Wenger had a calming influence, as did his stern wife Bouchra, a Moroccan girl from his old neighborhood. They settled down. He had two children. There exist rumors that he converted to Islam.

As an Arsenal player, he served an apprenticeship under club legends Thierry Henry and fellow countryman Dennis Bergkamp, who he was charged with succeeding. Once Bergkamp retired following the 2005-06 season and Henry moved to Barcelona after 2006-07, van Persie took the reins of Arsenal’s high-octane offense. First as a number 10, his natural position, and, following the sale of Emmanuel Adebayor to Manchester City ahead of 2009-10, as a target man.

Van Persie finally delivered on all that potential, almost exclusively scoring wondrous goals and becoming perhaps the world’s most dominant striker. Last season alone he scored a league-leading 30 Premier League goals and picked up a dozen assists, single-handedly salvaging a third place from Arsenal’s dreadful start to the season, earning him Premier League Player of the Year honors.

Yet for all that personal and playing growth, there remains something deeply self-centered within van Persie. The adoration and dependence of a very big club wasn’t enough. He needed that of a superclub. So in August he strong-armed Arsenal into selling him to Manchester United – which, tellingly, was glad to pay a $38 million transfer fee for an injury-prone 29-year-old. (Juventus allegedly made an offer too.) On Sept. 2, he repaid his first installment on that hefty price tag by scoring all three goals in United’s 3-2 win over Southampton, having twice gone behind.

But that deep-seated need to be the best – indisputably the best – remains corrosive. Van Persie’s feud with Inter Milan playmaker Wesley Sneijder, which dates back to their mid-teens when they both started representing their country, ruined the Netherlands’ Euro ’12 campaign. They both felt they had to be “the man,” dividing a team with an already tenuous chemistry into two camps.

“On some days I realize I see things others don’t,” van Persie told Dutch magazine Elsevier. “Maybe you can call that art, too. A painter has his own idea that he, independently of anything else, throws onto the canvas. Something that’s his alone. You can recognize that sort of inspiration in a pass, too.”

Maybe van Persie became an artist after all. In Cluj on Tuesday, a remote Transylvanian field will be his canvas.

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