Ryan Babel, six years since leaving Anfield, says he has come to accept he will always be known as a ‘Liverpool flop’ in the English media.
He has led Turkish side Besiktas to the brink of the Champions League last 16 and won back his place in the Netherlands squad. But there’s no bitterness from the winger who turns 31 next month.
“Liverpool is my club,” he says, smiling. “I try to follow every game. I still support them, I wish them all the best.”
Babel’s absence from Europe’s main stage has mirrored that of his former employers. Since he was sold to Hoffenheim in 2011, both his and Liverpool’s sole appearances in the Champions League have come in just a handful of group matches.
Time to deliver a KO
Ryan Babel’s Besiktas need only a point against Porto on Tuesday to reach the Champions League last 16, where they will be joined by Liverpool – if the Reds beat Sevilla.
Istanbul, 2005, was the last time Liverpool ruled the continent after their dramatic comeback against AC Milan saw them crowned champions in a Jerzy Dudek-inspired penalty shootout.
Babel is now launching his own revival in the Turkish city.
“I’m sure a lot of people lost sight of me,” says Babel, who has seen his YouTube subscribers soar to 100,000 since joining Turkish Super Lig champions Besiktas in the summer.
“Not everybody is following every league in the world so the Champions League is a platform where everybody can see what you’re still able to do.”
Babel failed to achieve success at Hoffenheim and in a second spell at Ajax after leaving Liverpool. He travelled as far afield as the United Arab Emirates in a bid to rebuild his career, before finding his feet at Besiktas.
“During your career, you have to make decisions. Sometimes maybe you don’t make such a good decision and at the end you have to try and recreate a position. That’s what I did all these years when I was maybe more under the radar. Now I’m back at a certain position that I’m grateful for. Right now I’m just trying to enjoy football.”
Babel, with two goals in Besiktas’ unbeaten start to the Champions League, is flourishing as a leader in the counter-attacking side which has already claimed wins against Porto, Monaco and RB Leipzig. It’s a far cry from being thrust into left-midfield in a 4-4-2 formation at Liverpool under Rafa Benitez, where he was given defensive responsibilities he had not experienced before as a forward at Ajax.
Babel only wishes Jurgen Klopp had come 10 years earlier.
“Judging from the outside I think the current Liverpool manager definitely seems to work with his players and try to improve them,” he says. “I think the 20-year-old me from that time, if I could have been managed under Jurgen Klopp, I’d have benefitted.”
At 20 years old, it was a learning curve under Benitez. But even now he is not sure he was ever equipped for the Premier League.
“As far as I can judge, English football is not for everybody,” says Babel. “You need to have the lungs for it, you need to have the strength for it. That applies to me also, at this point I don’t think I could survive in any team if it’s not for my game.
“I liked mostly to play football on the ground and have a little bit of playing tactics rather than just up and down, long balls and second balls. That’s not really my game.
“If there isn’t a team that plays my type of game I don’t think I could make a big difference. I have to be realistic.”
Mo Salah scored a sensational double for Liverpool last weekend
Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3 formation has reaped rewards for Chelsea reject Mo Salah, who has scored nine goals in 12 Premier League games since moving from Roma last summer.
The ‘Fab Four’ of Salah, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have yet to be released together on a regular basis, but Babel insists Klopp has created an environment for creative talents to be unlocked.
“You can have a squad that costs hundreds of millions, but if you don’t put them together with the right tactics you can also not be able to win titles,” he says.
“Those types of players are always necessary in a team, who are very creative and can break a game open. Everybody knows Coutinho is important for Liverpool.
“He’s one of the players I think I could benefit from as a player, who likes to give assists, feed you.”
Babel remains pragmatic about his chances of returning to the Premier League, but in an era in which full-backs roam and sweeper-keepers are back in fashion – the World Cup runner-up will not rule anything out.
“I’m at a certain age where the decisions you make have to be even more precise,” he says. “Right now I definitely feel that this could be my end station but in football you never know. One year you can be loved, the following they want you out.
“Football always, you have to be realistic. I take it from season to season and right now I definitely think I could stay here for many years.
“But teams are developing every year, one year it was Swansea that played very good football, the next it was Southampton. When it’s time, if it is there, you have to make the right decision.”