The Netherlands has famously been a difficult barometer on which to judge goalscorers. For every Eredivisie export that has gone on to become elite in a major league, there are those who have failed to replicate their returns after departing Dutch shores.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s career fell somewhere in between, which is why one of the most natural goalscorers of his era remains perennially underrated.
Huntelaar’s career took in spells at some of Europe’s traditional giants, but the goalscorer from Gelderland lacked the star power often desired to be a leading man at such clubs. His game was built on minimal involvement and maximum efficiency, a penalty-box prowler who lay in wait, as if coiled like a cobra, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.
The striker shaped his reputation with an abundance of goals for the youth sides at De Graafschap. PSV Eindhoven swooped in to sign the promising poacher, but the transfer to one of Dutch football’s elite proved a frustrating venture. Huntelaar made just one substitute appearance for PSV, with the free-scoring Mateja Kezman blocking his path to first-team football.
A prolific loan spell at Eerste Divisie side AGOVV during the 2003/04 campaign proved Klaas could cut it at senior level, before a £70,000 move to Heerenveen. Huntelaar had turned down a new deal with PSV, allowing Heerenveen to sign him for a pittance.
Across 18 months with De Superfriezen, Huntelaar made a mockery of PSV’s failure to hand him his chance. He scored 39 goals in 61 games, helped Heerenveen to UEFA Cup qualification, and attracted Ajax’s admiration. The capital club agreed a deal to bring Huntelaar, a boyhood fan, to Amsterdam in January 2006.
The change of scenery did not stem the flow of goals, as Huntelaar continued where he left off at his old side. His first six months at Ajax brought 24 goals, and he ended the campaign with 44 in 47 appearances in all competitions for both clubs.
That summer, he formed part of the Netherlands team at the 2006 UEFA u-21 European Championship. A talented team took the title for the Jong Oranje. Huntelaar helped himself to four goals, including a brace in the final win over Ukraine, to take the Golden Boot and Best Player awards.
A senior debut followed, where two goals and two assists against the Republic of Ireland inspired the Oranje to a 4-0 win at Lansdowne Road. He became the first player in 28 years to mark his Dutch debut with a goal.
Ajax had unearthed a gem, with a fabulous first touch and thirst for goals. Huntelaar frequented the scoresheet so regularly that he recorded 105 goals in just three seasons for Ajax, twice topping the Eredivisie for goals.
Huntelaar had become hunted, and a step up appeared inevitable. It arrived in the form of Real Madrid. The Spanish side spent €20m to sign Huntelaar, but the Bernabeu bench slowed his scoring. Left out of the club’s Champions League squad with Lassana Diarra favoured due to registration rules, it was a sign of the status he commanded in the Spanish capital. A return of eight goals from 13 starts confirmed his calibre, but the disposable Dutchman was sold on just six months later.
AC Milan took a chance on Huntelaar, a second crack at Europe’s best after the false start in Spain. The Rossoneri have a rich history of Dutch talent, but again opportunities proved limited. He scored seven goals in 30 games during a single season at the San Siro.
In 18 months, Huntelaar had gone from one of Europe’s hottest properties to a crossroads in his career. Though a transfer seemed certain, the 2010 World Cup was first the focus.
Huntelaar had struggled to command an automatic role with the Oranje, with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie representing competition of the highest standard.
In South Africa, he came off the bench to score a group-stage winner against Cameroon, but his role in the latter stages was minimal. He watched on as an unused substitute as the Netherlands lost 1-0 in the decider, with Andres Iniesta’s goal for Spain condemning the Dutch to a third World Cup final defeat.
That summer, Gelsenkirchen became the backdrop for the goalscorer’s renaissance. Schalke signed Huntelaar for a fee of just €12m after his stock had fallen, an investment that repaid over and over again. The currency: goals.
Huntelaar opened his account for The Royal Blues in the Revierderby derby against Borussia Dortmund and ended his maiden campaign with 13 in all competitions.
He formed an excellent understanding with former Real Madrid teammate Raul as Schalke reached the last four of the Champions League and won the DFB-Pokal. The latter final saw Huntelaar on target twice, as second-tier Duisburg were dispatched 5-0 at Berlin’s Olympiastadion.
Huntelaar had refound his form and confidence in Germany, the prelude to a spectacular second season. A run of 29 goals in 32 games saw ‘The Hunter’ become the first Dutchman to top the Bundesliga for goals, while 14 in 12 Europa League games sent Huntelaar’s haul stratospheric. He ended the campaign with 48 goals in 48 games across all competitions, a rate of return to match the finest forwards on the planet.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) January 19, 2021
At international level, he ended as the leading scorer in qualification for the 2012 European Championship. A dozen goals booked the Dutch their place at the tournament and improved a goal record that would conclude at 42 in 76 games for the Netherlands.
The Dutch have had some devastating forward talent, but just two can better that return. Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, Van Nistelrooy and Marco van Basten are among the names looking upward at Huntelaar’s haul.
Huntelaar left Schalke having scored 126 goals in 240 appearances across seven seasons. Injuries diluted his latter time with the club, before a romantic return to Ajax. Another half-century of goals was registered in four seasons back in the Eredivisie, to cement his standing in the Ajax annuals.
The breaks that came so commonly for Huntelaar inside the penalty box never materialised in the trajectory of his career, but he was as ruthless a goalscorer as seen in Europe during the best seasons of his career. Louis van Gaal once said of Huntelaar that he was ‘the best player in the world, bar none’ inside the area. It’s an assessment that was perhaps not too far from the truth.