Sven Botman was nicknamed ‘RoboCop’ in France, where he won the title in his first season with unfancied Lille. Sit opposite Newcastle United’s new £32million centre-back and you appreciate why.
He is 6ft 4ins tall, has an angular, chiselled face and, where other folk have arms and a torso, he appears to have body armour. His strapping frame even obstructs view of the Austrian mountains that surround us. So, how did he end up playing football?
‘I was scared of the small hockey ball,’ he says, a grin conceding the irony. ‘It’s really hard. When people smash it, it hurts!’
Sven Botman is bidding to take Newcastle into Europe after joining the Premier League side
Botman is talking to Sportsmail from Newcastle’s summer training camp. But, for now, the 22-year-old’s mind is back in his native Holland, retracing his journey to the Premier League.
He was born into a family of hockey players in the town of Badhoevedorp, where even the presence of neighbour Marco van Basten did not sway their sporting preference. His father, Maarten, and older brother, Niels, played hockey to a high standard. It was expected that Sven would maintain the tradition.
‘The first thing they gave me when I was a little child was a stick. I did not like it. I went to one open day and knew it wasn’t for me. I went straight to the other pitch and grabbed a football. My dad said, “It’s OK, do what you want”. But it was strange – it still is – because my whole family play hockey. It’s only me 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 would dutifully watch his brother play competitive matches. ‘Yes, but I used to run on during the breaks and kick my football in the hockey goals!’
The one sport that did compete with football was tennis. Indeed, in another world, it may have been Botman facing Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon recently instead of his compatriot Tim van Rijthoven.
‘I’ve never spoken about this, but I played tennis until I was nine. The Netherlands national tennis team wanted me to join. 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 photograph of his junior team in Badhoevedorp. There is Botman, aged seven, head and shoulders, literally, above his team-mates.
‘I remember this so well. I was a midfielder. The coach told me, “Play everywhere”. It seemed I was good, so I just ran all over and did everything.’
Botman is far more disciplined these days. Even through pre-season, it has been easy to see why comparisons have been drawn with Virgil van Dijk. ‘Please, calm, I need to get in the national team and learn from Virgil,’ he counters.
But, at Ajax, Botman did not stand out. In fact, it is mystifying to consider now that he never played for the first team. We joke that, had he graduated to Erik ten Hag’s seniors, the former Ajax boss would have tried to sign him for Manchester United this summer.
Botman, though, shows no appetite to give Ajax a kicking when I suggest they made a mistake by selling him to Lille two years ago.
‘I understood the choices they made. When I was 18, I was not good enough. They had a way of playing and I was not at that level. I had a good season on loan at Heerenveen but still, I did not know if Ajax was the right club for me – I was not the right profile. The moment Lille came, I knew I had to do this. I was not going to succeed or be fully myself at Ajax.
‘It is a crazy story that Ajax got over €13million for me and I never played a minute for the first-team! So, they did OK out of it. When I am honest, I cannot be angry with them. Ten Hag agreed that Lille was better for me. I don’t have anything to prove to him this season. I am thankful he was honest.’
Elders dispensing with home truths has been a recurring theme in Botman’s development. At secondary school, he was moved into a class for gifted athletes. The ‘sports kids’ he calls it. But, with that, came complacency. His dad was not impressed.
‘That class was great if you didn’t want to do a test, the teachers always gave you a little bit of leeway. But in my last year, my numbers were not good. I was always on the streets. My parents told me, “Come back before the sun goes down”, but I never did.
‘I had only three subjects – English, Netherlands and history. I did nothing. My dad was really angry… “You have to finish these tests, otherwise you’ll have a big problem!”. Eventually, I graduated, just.’
The picture Botman paints of his young self is very different to 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 are trying new things – girls, everything. Winston was on you, screaming if you didn’t do it right – “You’re s***!”. In the beginning, it was one big clash between us. Lots of fights and arguments. I did not like him. He did not like me.
Botman said he wasn’t good enough at 18-years-old and understands why Ajax sold him to Lille
He left Ajax without playing a single game under former boss Erik ten Hag (who is pictured speaking with 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 is the reason I have this mindset, a big part of my success. I still talk to him. After the move here, he said, “Don’t think the job is done now. You have to keep pushing, your level is higher”.’
Botman already has a taste for the Champions League. He also knows all about the recent history of Newcastle before the Saudi takeover, and that is not for him.
‘It is no longer a club just trying to stay in the Premier League,’ says Botman, whose friends and family will be at St James’ Park for Saturday’s 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 goal this season. I believe we can achieve that. I just hope people don’t already have it in mind that we’ll finish top four. You need time, it is step by step.’
Watching training earlier in the day, this is clearly a step up from what Botman was used to in France. He does not disagree.
‘I certainly need to adapt!’ he says, wiping his brow in mock recognition of the intensity. ‘There is a big difference here. Yeah, I was a bit surprised.
Botman completed his move from Lille to Newcastle for £32million in June of this year
Comparisons have been drawn between Botman and Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk
‘I knew the tempo in the Premier League was high, but training as well? There is no rest between drills. It is, “Go, go, go”. Everything is 200 per cent. But that’s a good thing. The manager is clear what he demands from us. If we want to reach that level, we have to demand a lot from ourselves.’
It says much for the work of Eddie Howe that even a Newcastle training session feels like an upgrade on Ligue 1 matches. It was not always like that in France. Not against Paris Saint-Germain, at least.
‘Before the game, you just look and think, “What the f***? That’s Lionel Messi. I play with you on FIFA!”. When he gets the ball and starts to dribble, you remember the Messi you’ve seen on TV, “Please, don’t let this guy dribble towards me, we’ll be in trouble!”.’
The 22-year-old has said the intensity of playing for an English club was a shock to the system
Botman actually scored a scissor-kick in a 5-1 defeat by PSG in February. ‘Please, I don’t want to remember it, even my goal.’
While the sight of Messi may have been the first time he was starstruck on the pitch, bumping into Dutch legend Van Basten as a boy was just as surreal.
‘Everyone knew where he lived. If you saw him on the street, you would say hello, but inside you’re like, “Wow, there’s Marco van Basten”. Nowadays, when you see kids on the side of the pitch, they don’t believe their eyes. I was like that. When I saw Van Basten, I was shy, I wasn’t running into him giving high fives. Now, all those kids are running into me and asking for pictures. It still feels a bit mad.’
It was only 12 years ago that Botman was crying into his vuvuzela, his hometown decorated in orange as the national team were beaten 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 picture of his teenage self in a racing buggy.
Botman (centre) also said training with a Premier League side took a lot of getting used
‘My first time karting was with my granddad and brother, but I was scared of the kart… I went in with my granddad. After that, I loved it. Me and my brother love speed, the excitement. We were always going to the limit – with cars, jumping off cliffs. I just love racing.’
It pains Botman that he missed Newcastle’s Austrian go-kart championship because of sickness. ‘I think I would have won,’ he says, deadpan. He was not so confident before his initiation song here in the team hotel.
‘I was like, “Oh, s***, it’s that time”. It’s never nice. 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 have seen and heard so far, Botman should have no problem doing exactly that at St James’ this season.