In the 2009 January transfer window, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar left Dutch giants AFC Ajax to join Real Madrid in a deal worth £17m. The move was expected to see the Dutch prodigy arrive on European football’s biggest stage and become the long-term replacement for fellow Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy at the Bernabeu. The top all-time goalscorer for the Dutch Under-21s, Golden Player and Top Scorer awards at the 2006 European Under-21 Championships, and twice being the top Eredivise top goalscorer helped make Huntelaar one of the most sought after prospects in European football. Almost twenty months on and the world is still waiting to be set alight.
Life was not always without problem in Dutch Football for “the Hunter” but the perceived failures of an inability to break into the PSV Eindhoven side, or an unimpressive loan spell at De Graafschap were far outweighed by the positives. Positives such as the 26 league goals he scored in the 2003-04 season on loan at AGOVV which saw the club name a stand after him for his impact. Positives such as the 17 goals he scored in the first half of Heerenveen’s 2005-06 season which earned him a big money move to AFC Ajax. Positives such as the 76 league goals he scored in 92 appearances for the Amsterdam side earning him an eventual move to La Liga. “Goal a game” strikers have never been a rarity in Holland – a tradition continued in 2009-10 by Luis Suarez – but for every Ronaldo there is a Mateja Kezman, for every Ruud van Nistelrooy, an Afonso Alves, which may well have discouraged clubs from matching the £17m price tag afforded him by Ajax.
It was a Real Madrid side in turmoil which finally pushed through a deal they hoped would salvage a failing 2008-09 season. Despite eight goals in 20 league appearances – only 13 of which were starts – Huntelaar was deemed a flop. Real’s technical secretary Jorge Valdano even came out and insisted Huntelaar simply was not good enough to play for the Madrid giants. Forced to adapt to a new league and quality of opposition at the biggest club in the world would have been a tough task for any player. When you add the decision to not register Klaas-Jan for the Champions League and the appointment of a makeshift management structure headed by Juande Ramos to see them through to the end of the season it is easy to see why it would take some time to settle. Time which Huntelaar would never receive.
If his time in Madrid represented the unhappiest of his career Huntelaar’s move to AC Milan in the Summer of 2009 was seen by many as a real chance to show the world the sort of clinical finishing that made him such a success not only in the Eredivisie, but also for the Dutch national side. After a slow start Huntelaar found himself a bit part player at another big club, often withdrawn in the second half or used as an impact substitute. The Dutch striker – once labelled by Louis van Gaal as the best penalty box player in World football – did nothing in his side’s Champions League run to the 1st Knockout phase and once again the same question was raised: Is Huntelaar really capable of competing on the elite stage?
Scoring 186 goals at club level from 290 appearances in all competitive matches, and 16 in 36 for the Dutch national side, means it is hard to write the obviously proficient Huntelaar off. At 26, there is certainly time to prove he can compete at the highest level with the greatest players in the world. However, with AC Milan’s Vice-President Adriano Galliani already stating the club’s desire to sell Huntelaar to fund moves for other targets, it seems one of Dutch football’s brightest hopes faces yet another Summer of uncertainty regarding his future. One thing however is certain: 2010-11 is the most important season of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s career yet.