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Toronto FC’s Gregory van der Wiel is not your typical defender

Gregory van der Wiel has brought consistent play and a unique personality to Toronto FC in his first season at the club. (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

TORONTO — Gregory van der Wiel had something to say.

The first question asked of the Dutchman at the press conference introducing him as a Toronto FC player was a simple one: Why did he decide the time was right to leave European soccer for North America?

In reply, Van der Wiel spoke for more than four minutes without pausing.

He recalled his time in Turkey, where he had signed a lucrative four-year contract at Fenerbahce in 2016. After three months, Van der Wiel sensed he was in trouble. When he was struck down with stomach pains, nobody, he said, “bothered to ask me, ‘Hey, what’s up? How are you feeling?'” The political situation in Turkey destabilized around a failed coup and conflict with neighbouring Syria. And a business relationship gone wrong cost Van der Wiel $4.5 million, which he is still pursuing in court.

When a move to Italian club Cagliari failed to rekindle the “pleasure” of playing, Van der Wiel knew what he wanted to do next.

“I’m a bit tired to be judged by the way I look, by what I do in my private life, by the pictures I post on Instagram,” he said. “If I like to post nice pictures, it doesn’t change me as a person. I’ve always been a person who works hard. I got sent away by Ajax and I came back. Not many players did that. I always had the mentality to become a top player.

“The last two years I got judged and sidelined by other things than my football qualities. I cannot even explain, sometimes, why. Sometimes it’s the way I look or, like I said, what I do in my private life. I got a bit tired of that, so I wanted to be in an environment where it’s different.”

The 30-year-old did not specify who he felt judged him, but there was plenty of talk of turbulence in the Fenerbahce locker room, as well as in his day-to-day life. He might have thought he had an ally in coach Dick Advocaat, a fellow Dutchman, but Advocaat accused Van der Wiel of following his own set of rules. Reports claimed a verbal confrontation between the two turned physical when goalkeeper Volkan Demirel came to Advocaat’s defense.

Van der Wiel decided the answer was to come to North America, which after just one week he described as a “totally different world.” Van der Wiel likes how the continent’s athletes — particularly in the NBA — are mostly allowed to express their personalities and off-field interests without being accused of a lack of focus.

Throughout my career, I learned that finding your driving purpose is paramount to your success no matter what you do. I knew football would push me far beyond where I started. Putting me on some of the greatest stages in the world, cherishing moments with forever. But during that time I never showed the world who Gregory van der Wiel really was. I don't talk much. I observe. Now it is time to change that and that is why I am very happy to welcome you to this platform. My platform is here to inspire, motivate and/or entertain you. Why? Because I like causing that sparkle in your eyes, the same sparkle I have when seeing the items or content that are featured on this website. But most of all, I want to encourage people to be themselves. Social media gives us boundaries, I don’t like boundaries. Creativity should have no rules. I also want to take this moment to give credit to all the beautiful artists that are responsible for creating the content featured on this platform. You all inspire and motivate me throughout life and I want others to feel the same. My platform will be updated weekly with art that I respect or stories that should be told. Stay tuned. Forget what you heard. This is me. Enjoy. All the best, Gregory van der Wiel www.gregoryvanderwiel.com

A post shared by Gregory van der Wiel (@gregoryvanderwiel) on

And Van der Wiel has many interests. “I love gaming, I love investing, I read books — I do lots of stuff that people might not think I would do,” he told Pro Soccer USA in June.

Last year, the former Paris Saint-Germain defender co-founded Block Party, an investment fund that backs tech startups. He recently sold his stake in the clothing line BALR. and the social-media brand 433, and plans to start a new company in Toronto that builds and manages personal brands.

On that front, Van der Wiel recently launched his own website out of a desire to share more about himself and his life with his fans. He posts TV and movie trailers, sports and entertainment photography and occasional blogs, with a heavy emphasis on hip-hop culture. Its influence on him is obvious in his own fashion choices and the tattoos that cover both of his arms and the top half of his torso.

“In other sports, it’s more open,” Van der Wiel reflected. “People get to know the players more. I think in soccer, it’s a little more closed.”

The Ajax influence

TFC has placed a significant emphasis on ensuring the club does all it can to help foreign signings adapt to life in Canada.

“Everything is well arranged and this is, already, everything I hoped for,” Van der Wiel said in that first press conference.

In return, they expect those imports to hold up their end of the bargain and perform. Toronto has endured an awful MLS season so far, but it would be hard to pin much of the blame on Van der Wiel, who has filled just about every defensive position in the lineup at one point or another due to a bevy of injuries.

Jun 8, 2018; Philadelphia, PA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Marcus Epps (20 controls the ball as Toronto FC defender Gregory van der Wiel (9) defends during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Now that the team is healthier, Reds fans are getting a closer glimpse of the ways in which the elegant, versatile right back or centerback is as atypical on the field as he is off it.

Minutes before kick off in the 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on July 21, Van der Wiel and Toronto coach Greg Vanney discussed a late tactical tweak. Instead of providing a passing option on the right, like an outside centerback in a three-man defence normally would, Van der Wiel was instructed to step into midfield when TFC gained possession.

Michael Bradley, who is often man-marked as the team’s deep-lying playmaker, would drag his man out of that space and leave it open for Van der Wiel to take over.

“That was the exact role he played when he was at Ajax,” Vanney said of Van der Wiel, who came through the famous Dutch club’s youth system. He was, as he mentioned, “sent away” to a now-defunct club in Haarlem at age 14 for poor behavior before returning to Ajax three years later and breaking into the first team. PSG bought him for a reported €6 million in 2012.

“He was a center back who would then step into defensive midfield,” Vanney continued. “They would turn what was a back three into a back four and he would become the extra defensive midfielder. It’s something he’s done before and he’s comfortable with, so that was part of the reason.”

It is not something just any defender could pull off.

“We think we can utilize him at times in that way, more so than an Eriq [Zavaleta] or a Chris [Mavinga] or some of the guys who aren’t necessarily as comfortable stepping into that next line,” Vanney added.

Just one thing has been missing from Van der Wiel’s TFC experience thus far: winning. He helped the club reach the Concacaf Champions League final, but positive results have been few and far between since then. Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Chicago at BMO Field, in which Van der Wiel was named the man of the match, was a step in the right direction and has restored hope of a late charge to the playoffs.

“[Winning] is what I grew up doing,” Van der Wiel said back in February. “I’ve been winning since I was seven, since I joined Ajax, and always played at teams where I had to win. That’s where I want to be and that’s who I am.”

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