Thursday, January 11, 2007
Guardian Interview with Raymond Van Barneveld
Donald McRae Tuesday January 9, 2007 The Guardian
Last Friday night, as the red wine flowed at the end of a long and emotional week in which he had become world champion after winning the greatest match in the history of darts, Raymond van Barneveld contemplated the madness of his new life. "I can't believe there are people out there who actually want to be Ray van Barneveld," the meaty 39-year-old former postman from The Hague murmured. His defeat of Phil Taylor on New Year's Day, in an epic encounter which gripped even darts sceptics flicking through the channels, unfolded in the tumult of the Circus Tavern in Purfleet. Four nights later, in a much quieter corner of a pub in Tynemouth, Van Barneveld suggested that "people want to have heroes, whether they're footballers or singers or darts players. But it still feels strange that a lot of people want my success, my lifestyle, everything. Then I remember that when I was growing up I wanted to be Eric Bristow, the Crafty Cockney. He was world champion so many times, an entertainer who people loved. I wanted that myself." He took another swig and rolled the Cabernet Sauvignon round his mouth as he remembered the match which sealed his own transformation from postman to millionaire. "It was the best I ever played. It had to be because Phil Taylor is the complete player with such dedication. Last year, the morning after he became world champion again, he rang [fellow English darts professional] Adrian Lewis and said 'You're five minutes late for practice.' I had to go into solid training myself for three months - all day, every day. I was on the treadmill each morning and I went track running too, an hour a day. You need that fitness because you have to play Phil on stage for three hours, sweating, staying concentrated." Three years ago Andy "The Viking" Fordham faced Taylor in a hugely anticipated television extravaganza. In the end, roared on by the sumptuous commentary of Sid Waddell, Fordham's massive girth did little more than fulfil the usual quips about darts being an overblown joke of a sport. According to Waddell, Fordham was "sweating under the lights like a hippo in a power shower" when he suffered an asthma attack and had to retire while trailing 5-2. The battle between Taylor and Van Barneveld was, in contrast, a genuine test of will which saw the Dutchman produce a remarkable comeback to defeat the 13-times world champion in a sudden-death 7-6 finish. "To do this I even had to take up meditation to prepare myself for this championship. And that kept me calm even when he played unbelievable and I was 3-0 down. I stayed cool because I just felt that it could still be my night. "Several players came to me afterwards and said 'Thank you, Ray, you've given us hope that Phil is beatable'. I said 'Yeah, but to beat him you need 21 180s'. You also need an angel on your shoulder. On the morning of the final I was sitting alone on my bed and had a vision. It came to me and a voice said 'Ray, you are going to get three darts for tops and you will hit double top because you are turning 40 this year'. That's what happened." Van Barneveld shuddered at his darting spirituality, before he turned to the more human form of his gracious opponent. "In the middle of the night Phil sent me a text. I've still got it: 'Ray, that was marvellous. What a great final. All the best and hope you have a wonderful reception in Holland.' I texted him back: 'Phil, you're such a true sportsman and I love you for that. If you ever stop playing darts you deserve a statue in your honour. I will kneel for my king'." I laughed but he immediately said: "No! I'm serious! That's what beating Phil meant to me in the PDC [Professional Darts Corporation]. I had won four world championships in the BDO [the rival and less exalted British Darts Organisation] but every time people said 'Yeah, but you didn't beat the best player of all time - Phil Taylor'. That was the main reason I switched to the PDC last year - and this makes it the biggest ever moment for Raymond van Barneveld." A tendency to refer to himself in the third person, illustrating his fully-fledged celebrity status, emerged in 1998 when the man inevitably dubbed Barney won his first BDO title in a final watched by 5m Dutch TV viewers - a third of Holland's population. He was still a working postman but, on his return, 10,000 fans greeted him at Schiphol airport. "It was incredible. As a postman I earned €1,250 a month [£840] and always struggled to look after my wife and three kids. Then suddenly I won a world title and £40,000 and everyone in Holland said 'He deserves it because he's such a nice fellow'. But once I turned pro, and the money rolled in, people said 'Oh, he's so arrogant!' "They're all cheering me again, saying 'Barney is the greatest'. But I was so hurt when it felt like people no longer respected me in Holland. After I lost the Lakeside final last year [when his hopes of matching Bristow's record five BDO titles were ended by his 21-year-old countryman Jelle Klaasen] I was treated like a complete loser. Everyone said 'Jelle is our king'. "Now it's starting again. I had a couple of old critics calling this week to say 'Hey Ray, how you doing?'. I said 'How come you're phoning after slagging me off so long?'. They said 'Oh, forget that Ray, we're friends!'. That's how it is. So if you went with me to a pub in Holland tonight you'd be surprised. Everybody now wants to buy me a drink, shake my hand or demand a photo on their mobiles. I say 'How about asking me politely?'. But they're crazy about darts - especially the women. Dutch women love darts. 'Of course that makes it hard for [his wife] Sylvia. Even if we go out for dinner you feel [women] watching you. I have this rule for myself. You can ask me everything, but the answer is not always yes. I'm on my guard all the time because someone can take a picture of you in the toilet and not long after that it can be downloaded and seen by millions around the world. It's never private anymore." Van Barneveld loves technology so much that he describes himself as "an Inspector Gadget - a guy who can't go into Dixons without buying the latest device". Yet he sighed sadly at this downside of modern fame. "I had something going on in November with a girl I know. She was the ex of [darts player] Darryl Fitton. "She gave me an exhibition in Holland and they made pictures of me and her and the next day it was in the tabloids: Ray Has A New Girlfriend - Sylvia Is Out!" The life of a Dutch darts celebrity sounds racier than anything Fordham ever experienced, even in a power shower. "No," Van Barneveld protested. "She just rang and said she'd organise a darts exhibition for me in Holland and that was it. But people think 'Oh yeah, no smoke without fire'. There's a lot of crap." Having met in 1992, when the postal trudge was lonely and unromantic, Barney and Sylvia have had to adjust to a complex social life. "You can never know how your wife will react. I talk to her a lot and say 'Sylvia, sometimes people want to be near me - not only men but women too'. And if I go to a dance club I might sit next to a woman and someone takes a picture and you get the whole story again of whether I say yes or no [to having his photo taken]. It's not always nice to say no. That side is not great but I love the way my celebrity opens doors to big events like football matches and concerts." Van Barneveld has an endearing habit of name-dropping as if in thrall to stardom itself. After reiterating that he and Chelsea's Arjen Robben are texting buddies, he added: "Even Robin van Persie! He backed me up in the newspaper. Robin said he thinks Phil is the better player but he wanted me to win. That's OK. Just the fact that he's watching makes me proud." Has he met Van Persie? "No, but that will come. They've just taken photos of me holding the Carling Cup. How often do you get that chance? I've never met my three big football heroes - Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp - but I think now it will be no problem. And when Arjen invited me to watch Chelsea against Barcelona last season we met Roman Abramovich." Did the Russian mogul invite Van Barneveld aboard his yacht? "No, but I said he can have a free dart exhibition." Had Abramovich even heard of the Dutch darts master? "I don't know," Barney admitted more sheepishly. "I didn't shake his hand. But I was in the same room as him." Van Barneveld might occasionally depict his life among the rich and famous with the broadest of brush strokes - but he conceded candidly that "my wife and I have had some tough times these last three months. That's why we got emotional after the final. It was a great win for us both - because we were kissing on the front page of every Dutch newspaper the next morning. Everyone said 'Well, they're not separate after all'. Life changes all the time and that's why I like Supertramp, REO Speedwagon, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Duran Duran and Toto. That 80s stuff is on my iPod wherever I go." The king of the oche seemed oblivious to his eye-wateringly bad taste in music as he considered the bitter-sweet life of a darts-playing celebrity. "Yeah," he said mistily as he drained his glass, "that's my feeling when I play those songs. I get emotional and the tears come. But sometimes, even if you're on top of the world, you just need that to happen."