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Sven Botman quit hockey because he was scared of the ball now he’s earning comparisons with Van Dijk

Sven Botman was nicknamed ‘RoboCop’ in France, where he won the title in his first season with the impatient Lille. Sit opposite Newcastle United’s new £32million centre-back and you’ll see why.

He is six feet tall, has an angular, chiseled face and, where other people have arms and a torso, he appears to have a bulletproof vest. Its strapping frame even obscures the view of the Austrian mountains that surround us. So, how did he end up playing football?

“I was afraid of the little hockey ball,” he says with a grin that admits the irony. ‘It is very difficult. When people smash it, it hurts!’

Sven Botman offers to bring Newcastle to Europe after joining Premier League side

Sven Botman offers to bring Newcastle to Europe after joining Premier League side

Botman talks to Sports post from Newcastle summer training camp. But for now, the 22-year-old is back in his native Netherlands with his thoughts on his journey to the Premier League.

He was born into a family of hockey players in the small town of Badhoevedorp, where even the presence of neighbor Marco van Basten did not change their sporting preference. His father, Maarten, and older brother, Niels, played high-level hockey. The expectation was that Sven would maintain the tradition.

“The first thing they gave me when I was a little kid was a stick. I did not like it. I went to an open day and knew it wasn’t for me. I immediately went to the other field and grabbed a football. My father said, “It’s okay, do what you want”. But it was strange – it still is – because my whole family plays hockey. I’m the only one who plays football.’

Still scared of the hockey ball, yeah?

“I’m tall, if I play now it wouldn’t be so good for my back…”

As a boy, Botman dutifully watched his brother play competitive matches. “Yeah, but I ran through the breaks and kicked my soccer ball into the hockey goals!”

The only sport that did compete with football was tennis. Indeed, in another world it might have been Botman who recently faced Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon instead of his compatriot Tim van Rijthoven.

‘I never talked about it, but I played tennis until I was nine. The Dutch tennis team wanted me to participate. It could have been different, but I had to make a choice. I chose football.’

An offer from Ajax’s academy helped with the decision. I show him a photo of his junior team in Badhoevedorp. There, Botman, seven years old, is literally head and shoulders above his teammates.

‘I remember this so well. I was a midfielder. The coach told me: “Play everywhere”. It seemed like I was good, so I just ran everywhere and did everything.’

Botman is much more disciplined these days. Even during the preparation it was easy to see why comparisons were made with Virgil van Dijk. “Please calm down, I need to get on the national team and learn from Virgil,” he counters.

But Botman did not stand out at Ajax. It’s even a mystery to think now that he never played for the first team. We joke that if he had graduated from Erik ten Hag’s seniors, the former Ajax boss would have tried to get him to Manchester United this summer.

However, Botman shows no appetite to kick Ajax if I say they made a mistake by selling him to Lille two years ago.

“I understood the choices they made. When I was 18, I wasn’t good enough. They had a way of playing and I was not at that level. I had a good season on a rental basis at Heerenveen, but I still didn’t know if Ajax was the right club for me – I didn’t have the right profile. The moment Lille came, I knew I had to do this. I would not succeed at Ajax or be completely myself.

‘It’s a crazy story that Ajax got more than 13 million euros for me and I didn’t play for the first team for a minute! So they did well. If I’m honest, I can’t be mad at them. Ten Hag agreed that Lille was better for me. I have nothing to prove to him this season. I’m grateful he was honest.’

Elders forgoing home truths is a recurring theme in Botman’s development. In high school, he was transferred to a class for gifted athletes. He calls it the ‘sport kids’. But with that came the complacency. His father was not impressed.

‘That lesson was nice if you didn’t want to take a test, the teachers always gave you a little space. But in my senior year my grades were not good. I was always on the street. My parents told me, “Come back before the sun goes down,” but I never did.

‘I only had three subjects: English, the Netherlands and history. I did nothing. My father was really angry… “You have to finish these tests or you’ll have a big problem!”. In the end I graduated, just like that.’

The picture that Botman paints of his young self is very different from the man before us now – mature, determined, focused. So, when did things change? Enter former Chelsea defender Winston Bogarde, his youth coach at Ajax.

“When I was 16, you tried new things – girls, everything. Winston sat against you and yelled if you didn’t get it right – “You’re an asshole!”. In the beginning it was one big clash between us. Lots of fights and fights. I didn’t like him. He didn’t like me.

Botman said he was not good enough at the age of 18 and understands why Ajax sold him to Lille

Botman said he was not good enough at the age of 18 and understands why Ajax sold him to Lille

He left Ajax without playing a single match under former boss Erik ten Hag (who is pictured talking to Lisandro Martinez during his time at the club)

He left Ajax without playing a single match under former boss Erik ten Hag (who is pictured talking to Lisandro Martinez during his time at the club)

“But over the years I understood why he said those things. I admire him so much. He’s the reason I have this mindset, a big part of my success. I’m still talking to him. After moving here he said: “Don’t think the job is done now. You have to keep pushing, your level is higher”.’

Botman is already looking forward to the Champions League. He also knows all about Newcastle’s recent history before the Saudi takeover, which is not for him.

“It’s no longer a club just trying to stay in the Premier League,” said Botman, whose friends and family will be in St James’ Park on Saturday for the opener against Nottingham Forest.

“It’s a club with a big plan. They want to reach the top. That’s why I’m here. Europe is definitely a target this season. I believe we can achieve that. I just hope people don’t already have in mind that we finish in the top four. You need time, it goes step by step.’

Looking at training earlier in the day, this is clearly a step up from what Botman was used to in France. He doesn’t agree.

“I definitely have to adapt!” he says, wiping his forehead in mock recognition of the intensity. ‘There’s a big difference here. Yes, I was a little surprised.

Botman completed his move from Lille to Newcastle in June this year for £32m

Botman completed his move from Lille to Newcastle in June this year for £32m

Comparisons have been made between Botman and Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk

Comparisons have been made between Botman and Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk

“I knew the pace in the Premier League was high, but training too? There is no rest between exercises. It’s, “Go, go, go”. Everything is 200 percent. But that’s a good thing. The manager is clear what he asks of us. If we want to reach that level, we have to ask a lot of ourselves.’

It says a lot for Eddie Howe’s work that even training in Newcastle feels like an upgrade from Ligue 1 matches. It was not always like that in France. At least not against Paris Saint-Germain.

“Before the game, you just look and think, ‘What the f***? That’s Lionel Messi. I’m playing with you on FIFA!’ When he gets the ball and starts dribbling, you remember the Messi you saw on TV: “Please don’t let this man dribble at me, we’re in trouble!”.

The 22-year-old has said the intensity of playing for an English club was a shock to the system

The 22-year-old has said the intensity of playing for an English club was a shock to the system

Botman even scored a scissor kick in a 5-1 defeat to PSG in February. “Please, I don’t want to remember, not even my goal.”

While the sight of Messi may have been the first time he’d appeared on the pitch as a star, it was just as surreal to bump into Dutch legend Van Basten as a boy.

“Everyone knew where he lived. If you saw him on the street you would say hello, but inside you think: “Wow, there’s Marco van Basten”. When you see kids on the side of the field these days, they won’t believe their eyes. I was like that. When I saw Van Basten I was shy, I didn’t run into him when he was giving high fives. Now all those kids run into me and ask for pictures. It still feels a little crazy.”

It’s only been 12 years since Botman cried in his vuvuzela, his hometown adorned in orange when the national team was defeated by Spain in the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa. His escape from such disappointment was racing, and it still is. He smiles when I share a photo of his teenage self in a race buggy.

Botman (center) also said it took a lot of getting used to training with a Premier League team

Botman (center) also said it took a lot of getting used to training with a Premier League team

‘My first time karting was with my grandfather and brother, but I was afraid of the kart… I went in with my grandfather. After that I loved it. Me and my brother like speed, the thrill. We always went to extremes – with cars, jumping off cliffs. I just love racing.’

It pains Botman that he missed the Newcastle Austrian karting championship due to illness. “I think I would have won,” he says with a straight face. He wasn’t so sure about his initiation song here at the team hotel.

“I was like, ‘Oh, s***, it’s that time.’ It’s never fun. I did Three Little Birds by Bob Marley, the song I always heard when I watched Ajax. But everyone seemed to enjoy it. You just have to get the crowd behind you.’

From what we’ve seen and heard so far, Botman should have no problem doing just that at St James’ this season.

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