In a revealing interview with Sky Sports, new Fulham signing Ryan Babel says he has “unfinished business” in the Premier League.
He also reflects on a career that has seen him play for Liverpool, Ajax and Turkish sides Kasimpasa and Besiktas, as well as in the United Arab Emirates.
The 32-year-old explains why he didn’t “fulfil his potential” at Liverpool, talks about the importance of “politics” in football and how he has matured in recent years.
Here’s everything Babel had to say ahead of potentially making his Fulham debut against Tottenham, live on Sky Sports on Sunday….
How does it feel to be back in the Premier League?
“It feels good to be back in the Premier League. It’s surprising, I know that, even for me it’s still surprising but I had a good think about it and I was up for the challenge.
“It went so fast, Fulham called my agent and I had to think about it very quickly, if I was still ok and fit enough for the Premier League. I know at this point my career is only a few years down the road and I want to enjoy as much football as possible so that’s why I made the decision.”
Fulham vs Tottenham
January 20, 2019, 3:30pm
Get Sky Sports Get a Sky Sports pass
You say it was a surprise, but would you say your own career has not gone down the route even you expected it to?
“Of course. My career’s been a bumpy road, but at the same time I think I am living proof that if you put enough work into things you decide more or less where you want to end up.
“A lot of people talked down about my career at some point, which makes sense. At the end I had to resurrect it, and make certain decisions which I did well and that’s why I’m here today.”
When did people talk down about your career?
“I went to the UAE aged 28, which normally doesn’t make sense to go at that age. It made sense for me, people were not really looking at me how they do now, so it was a very easy decision.
Babel’s journey back to the PL
“After that, I had to try from that point after a difficult season to make sure I could play football for longer so I had to come to Europe and went to Spain. Financial-wise it was a big difference but it was an investment in myself to put myself on the map again.
“I had a six-year absence from the national team, which normally would be years you had to be present but I guess because of certain paths I chose it wasn’t for me at that time. Now because of different reasons, I’m doing well and have got a chance again.”
Did you ever doubt your ability?
“No, I never doubted my ability. However, I did notice that in football there’s a lot of politics unfortunately, and of course you can debate whether it was fair or not fair, but you have to play your politics right to make sure you fit in well.”
Hindsight is a wonderful gift, but do you have any regrets about any decisions you made?
“I don’t want to say regrets, because at the end of the day that made me the person I am today and the experience I have had has taught me a lot, but realistically if you could make different decisions you would think about the decisions you made back then.”
Do you regard the Premier League as unfinished business?
“Yeah, I would. That’s one of the decisions I’m talking about – maybe I shouldn’t have come to England at that time, I was pretty young and not really fully outgrown from the Dutch league when I joined Liverpool [at the age of 20 in 2007]. Perhaps a couple more years in Holland would have been good for me.
“Joining Liverpool at that time was the first time living outside my country, my parents’ home even, and it was a whole different world for me. A lot of things came on my plate straight away, I had to grow up very fast, but fans and people don’t give you that time, they want you to perform and if you don’t, it’s time for another player. Most people say I didn’t fulfil my potential at Liverpool so it is unfinished business.”
You’re very active on social media so I am sure you have seen the 10-year challenge that is going around, but what is different about you as a person from 10 years ago?
“I’ve matured a lot, I understand much more what needs to be asked to make sure you are able to perform, the balance for myself, recognising my own body, the rest you have to take, and the different preparations to perform well. That’s one of the things I didn’t have enough guidance for back then, and it’s a big difference.”
A debate about you has been whether you are a winger or a striker; has that debate changed?
“I would say I’m not the typical winger, but at the same time I don’t have the stats to be a striker. I can play in both positions, but it depends what is necessary from every different game. In Turkey I played up front a lot because of the game we were playing, but also on the left – I’d say that is my position mostly. I think I have been brought in to be a winger, but we have had a very brief chat. I’m sure we will talk more in the next few days.”
There’s usually initiation songs when new players join clubs, and you are an experienced rapper…
“Unfortunately I’m retired for a long time. I’m not really associated with that any more. I like music a lot, but that was one of the distractions for me at that time that didn’t make me fully focused on football. I realised it once I left Liverpool. I was 23, and I left it behind and tried to make sure I focused on my career.”
It’s interesting listening to you as it sounds like you could have done some things better but then other things happened that were out of your control…
“I’ve done some interviews during my career, the journalists have asked me about my time at Liverpool and I have always criticised the management at that time, who were guiding me in a way which I think they could have done much better for a player at that age, like giving more guidance. Like you said, it wasn’t always one party but it was probably a combination why I didn’t fulfil my potential.”
Do you still love the game?
“I still love the game very much. At one point, I must admit it was all business for me, but based on the decisions I have made after, I got the love back that I have today. I guess it’s the whole process, the team, the ball at your feet, things you discuss up front, the way you want to play, and when it works it’s a great feeling and if it doesn’t, it bothers you – especially if you have a good team. If you don’t win games it bothers you and that’s a good sign that you still have love for the game.”
How tough will the rest of the season be for Fulham?
“It’s very tough. I hope I can give my good energy to the team, maybe some different dynamics, and give some motivation. It’s not impossible to stay up, it’s not the end of the road, it’s a long season with a lot of things happening, but I’m confident we can stay up.”
If you could play a significant part in helping Fulham avoid relegation, how much would that be about proving people wrong, and perhaps proving yourself right?
“The second one first. I left England with a 50/50 feeling that I didn’t really show everything I had to show to people, but it’s a combination.”