There are moments when human beings become giants. Not in physical form, but within your mind. Quite like when your shortarse mother shouts at you and seems like a beast, covering the entire room, when in reality, she’s 5 foot off the floor from head to toe. Sometimes, our perceived bias, our self-created imagery, the reputations, the auras, everything that we create within our brains - sometimes that can affect reality.
For instance, to link this to Aston Villa, let’s take a trip back to the last FIFA World Cup. Back when the USA qualified and surprised, when England disappointed and when Germany claimed the throne. The World Cup is the theatre production of sport in which the footballers of the world have the chance to claim a starring role.
Ron Vlaar was a very-average, heavily-set, intelligent Premier League defender. He packed an almighty shot, was resolute at the back, prone to the odd error, and more than prone to an injury - and of course, he played for Aston Villa. Not noticed much in the Premier League, a Paul Lambert signing for Villa, Ron Vlaar, like the Villa centreback’s before him was the unassuming mould into which legend would pour itself - Mellberg, Laursen, Teale, McGrath. The same unassuming attributes followed all, like they begat each other, while narrative veins ran through each to strip them of their similarities and reinforce their individualism. The resolute Laursen, the lionhearted Teale, the unstopped Mellberg and the grace and fragility of McGrath.
For a few matches, it seemed like Ron Vlaar would join the pantheon of Villa greats, spending the time he spent on top of the world as a bargaining chip for entry.
We should not judge players for their performances in the high pressure environs of tournament football, but it is very much in our nature to do just that - because tournament football is always a story, and when we have these stories we build and create legends, just to share. In these environments, players either fold or they step up. To say that Vlaar simply stepped up would be an understatement. To say he became the best player on the planet would be overkill of the grossest nature. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Unassuming Ron Vlaar of Aston Villa stepped into the metaphorical telephone box and his Clark Kent removed his humanising spectacles and became the Adonis in which hopes were placed: Concrete Ron - Superhero of the Netherlands.
A series of standout performances in the group stages alongside Daley Blind and the mercurial Robin Van Persie saw Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands emerge as a force to be reckoned with. They swept Spain aside with ease, and as other teams fell, it was the Netherlands who sought to right the wrongs of 2010, in which they fell to their earlier victims, Spain, in the final.
It wasn’t Ron’s technique that helped Van Gaal’s Netherlands excel, although that was a big help, but his superhuman ability to win the ball at any given moment. Now, this wasn’t Beckenbauer precision, nor Rio Ferdinand positioning, but an intricate art of the last-gasp tackle. It’s not that the Netherlands were good at defending, but more so that Vlaar could make up for any mistake with a toe-touch sliding tackle. A hairline-thin attempt at saving his team that seemed to always pay off. That’s not to say he was a slapstick defender in the same vein as the centre-half version of Micah Richards, who excelled in looking heroic - it’s that Vlaar was heroic.
When faced up with the greatest talent in the world, on the greatest stage of them all in the Semi-Final, Vlaar did not shrink. The diminutive Lionel Messi stood tall as the most gifted player in the world. Maybe not the most successful, but certainly the most magical. It seems that Ron Vlaar is still the only man capable of picking up Messi by the scruff of his neck and making his intelligence and skill out to be the simple meandering of a magical footballing child. Ron Vlaar was serious football, Messi was fantasy, and in the realism of the World Cup, it took the famed lottery of a penalty shootout to break Ron, who dropped from immortal to human in seconds with his penalty miss, as he screamed for referee Cuneyt Cakir to take a second look, with the ball passing the line post-save. Of course, Ron’s miss isn’t the full story. With Van Gaal unable to find a man to take the first penalty against Argentina, it was Vlaar who would grab the ball and walk to the penalty spot, as though he was the convicted walking to Death Row for the final time. Ron might have known his fate, but who could begrudge this man being confident?
Ron wouldn’t be able to emulate his form when he came back to England, and didn’t leave the World Cup with anything tangible, except for praise and plaudits. Moves to the world’s biggest clubs were touted, but Ron stayed at Aston Villa. He would form a decently solid partnership with Phillipe Senderos for all of five minutes, before injury would claim him, and his Aston Villa career.
We cannot say Ron was a Villa legend, nor Villa’s best centre-half, nor in the top 20 Villa players of all time - but we can say that a Villa man was on top of the world for the briefest of moments - on the biggest stage of them all. Ron Vlaar is a story of clear Villa bias to be enjoyed, but the woe of reality in this case is hard to bear, and the real shame of all of this is that Ron Vlaar’s body would stop him playing the part of the World Cup hero in a full-time role.