Creative Soccer Culture

Gregory van der Wiel Talks Life After The Game

A product of the famed Ajax youth system, Gregory van der Wiel’s playing career came to something of an unceremonious end following a training ground bust up at Toronto. But while that may have unwittingly brought the curtain down on his playing career, it did not stop the man, for van der Wiel is full of ambition, a trailblazer in every sense, as we found out when we spoke with him recently.

Gregory van der Wiel’s journey in the game is anything but ordinary. Having spent time at Ajax, PSG, Fenerbache, Cagliari and finally Toronto, his playing career never quite hit the heights that his earlier career promised. Always open to opportunities, he was, in his own words, easily sidetracked. But those distractions have now become his focus as the former Dutch international forges his life away from the pitch.

Firstly, off the bat – how’s life been over the last few weeks with Coronavirus and lockdown and all that? How are you keeping busy?

Yeah, it's a different situation of course, nobody has experienced this before. But, yeah, I'm home and I'm inside with my family for the last month already. I’ve got a pretty nice house with a lot of space which I bought in L.A. after I stopped playing. So yeah, actually we can’t complain to be honest. We are home here and we are enjoying ourselves. My daughter is running around playing. We have a nice garden and the weather is mostly nice here. Other than that, I've been busy with online stuff as well, like marketing and branding. It's a case of adjusting at this moment and there’s not a lot of work out there of course with everybody sitting inside and the sports world stopping. Other than that we're fine.

Do you see times like this as a forced time to reflect? There’s positive you can take from situations like this…

Definitely. That's one of the things I wanted to point out, despite all the health issues out there, this is a time to reflect, to go back to the basics, to see what's really important. That's your family, of course, in the first place, but it's really your time to recalibrate. Normally we're so busy in our daily lives and we just keep going for athletes, we just keep training and going from the next game to the next game. Entrepreneurs in business too, they've got to keep the business running. But this is really a time to reflect and take a step back and then to look back and say OK… How is it going? What is important? What can I do better? And also to pivot to do other things these days. I think a lot of businesses are taking a hit right now so it's really a time to to think about all this stuff and see what you can do better in life, in business and in general to be honest.

We’ve always seen you as a trailblazer in many respects, feels like you’d have the right mindset to get through something like this. How would you describe yourself?

Yeah, I'm always looking to the next thing and I'm always thinking ahead. That’s the way I am actually. Being that way gave me some trouble in my career because I was thinking about, “okay, I want to start a business, I want to do things on the side, invest, make smart investments”… you know, just do other stuff with my free time rather than just watching Netflix. That was difficult while playing football because people wouldn’t always see and understand that. Often people would say to me, “go train, go train, football is not in first place for you, you’re too busy with other stuff” which is not true of course. I always had to battle those thoughts and comments.

But yeah, I'm the type of person that always, always wants to do more. I'm very ambitious. Even now I realise I couldn’t just stop playing football and just sit here by the pool and enjoy my life. That’s just not me. I need something to look forward to. I need to build something. I'm very ambitious in that part. And I've been investing in startups for for a couple of years already now. I'm busy with trading the stock market as well. Like I said, I'm very ambitious and I like to do a lot of different stuff.

For a long time you’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to mixing a genuinely strong creative eye with football and lifestyle – where did that start?

It actually started when I was playing in Turkey at Fenerbache. Yeah, I got side tracked there after a couple of months when I was not not playing anymore. That period gave me a lot of free time to develop interest in other areas. And that's what I did. I started to be interested in investing and in trading and all kinds of stuff. In areas where I can make some smart decisions with my money. That's what I did at the time. I also invested in BALR – the clothing brand, 433 the platform, which I sold last year. It was a great investment, and that's how I sparked the interest in that area and it hasn’t gone away ever since.

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So much strong 35mm on your Instagram alone – When did you first pick up a camera?

I've always liked taking pictures. Yeah, I always say who wouldn't look nice in that picture on your Instagram – everybody wants to post nice pictures up. I was early in that, too, and I remember at the World Cup of 2010, they call me Twitter boy and Twitter. There's a tweet to that. One year later, everybody was on Twitter. That's how it goes. And you know, with my girlfriend who does a lot on Instagram as well, you know, it's just part of the lifestyle these days, but even doing that got me in trouble, like I said, if I posted a nice picture, I’d get stuff like “stop being a model, go back to training”, you know, that kind of silly stuff.

The last couple years, I’ve been really interested in just taking my own kind of pictures, not just the iPhone ones, but also work with film, have to get it developed and not the perfect pictures. Just have one shot at taking a picture organically, and that's what you mostly see on my Instagram these days I think. Film photos shot with a film camera. That's just my style. Not I'm not aiming to have the perfect pictures anymore, to have the most likes. I just do my stuff – what I like and you know, I’d rather have a small community of people who really likes me for the way I am and my interest than have a broad audience of people who like my pictures, but are not really, really interested in my in my style, in my way of thinking and stuff.

How much do you live for new experiences? It feels like you’re someone who values spending time with people or doing things rather than just the cliché glitz that can come with football…

Yes definitely. I'm always exploring new stuff and untouched spaces, and I always try to build something, build a brand out of my own name, my image while I was playing football. I tried to with with several people and companies and for my part, it was never really the quality I was looking for and the knowledge I was looking for. That's why two years ago, I decided to do it myself and start a branding company. We call it a creative shop. It's not just about branding and having nice pictures. Branding is about every detail, every detail in an athletes life. Players often have these companies who have a creative guy behind them who will create campaigns or think about the branding stuff, every detail. But for athletes it's different to be honest. Athletes are brands too, so why shouldn't they have a creative guy behind them who make sure everything looks great, who makes sure they make the right steps, makes sure they give the right interview or the right investment, because even investments are a branding strategy for me.

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I'm the type of person that always, always wants to do more. I'm very ambitious. Even now I realise I couldn’t just stop playing football and just sit here by the pool and enjoy my life. That’s just not me. I need something to look forward to. I need to build something. I'm very ambitious in that part"

Let’s talk about the past few years – can you set the scene a little for us, stepping back from football and putting your head in the business world. What’s that been like?

It came earlier than I expected, earlier than I wanted it, to be honest. It was not like, okay, I'm done now. I'm too old. Let's stop playing now. It was almost forced on me a bit.  The last couple of years I was in Turkey after Paris, it didn’t go well. I got sidetracked after three months, while I had signed a four year contract. So that was a big blow of course. I then went to Italy on loan where I got sidetracked as well. I playing at the bottom of the league, but sitting on the bench for no reason, in my opinion. So at that point I thought OK and decided to go to the MLS in America where the sports culture is different. Where I might fit better. I had a great first year in Toronto FC and played every game, played in the Champions League in America and had a great bond with all the team players.

It was the first time in two years that I was in a team, where I could speak English, where I can make jokes, laugh with the players. In Turkey it was difficult. Italy was difficult because I don't speak the language as well. Athletes in America, the whole industry is more open to athletes doing stuff on the side. You see, every athlete is investing in stuff and starting things – The LeBron’s, Steph Curry’s. You can name it, every athlete to start something. It's more calm and more normal here to have a life outside of sports and just to be yourself, which was difficult for me in Europe. Like I said, I'm the person who always thinks ahead, always thinks about the small stuff. I read a lot as well.

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In Toronto, we had a year that was not going well for us and we didn’t make the playoffs. I kind of thought, me coming from Europe having won a lot of prizes and gained a lot of experience, that I could help. I think they saw me as someone quick to open their mouth and maybe a bit of a threat. That’s how it went down anyway. We had a bad season and so the manager’s job wasn’t very safe anymore. Having this guy there (me), from Europe, questioning your methods – which I didn’t do by the way – but that’s probably how it felt, wasn’t helping the situation of the staff. Anyway, nothing changed and we were making the same mistakes and one day I said that the training was shit too, and it was my feeling that if we stay in that cycle, we were not going to make the playoffs again. I'm a winner and in that case, I just wanted the team to do better. I look back and sometimes I think I shouldn't have opened my mouth too much. I should have just got on with it but that’s just not me. I wanted to win. But sometimes you have to be smarter about things. In the end they said, sorry, you need to leave.

I had just had a daughter in Canada. She has a Canadian passport and Toronto was the first time in years that I really had a lot of fun playing football again and enjoyed being with the guys traveling. This was a big blow for me mentally. 

I tried some different clubs. I always wanted to live in L.A. so I tried the two L.A. clubs. I tried out at Atlanta, where Frank De Boer is coach, who I played with at Ajax of course. Surprisingly, none of the clubs would take me. To the two L.A. teams I said, “listen, take away the money aspect. I don't need money. I will play for free just to make a statement.” For me, it was not about money. I wanted to play and I'm gonna live here anyway. I might as well play for free. But I thought, OK. That's it. I’ve tried L.A. both clubs and I’ve said that I would play for free. I just got “nope, nope, nope” and at that point I realised, that if a player with my qualities, with my background, with my career at age 31 … If people will not take a player like me, even for free, with no salary then it’s really bad.

I had to look at my situation then. I was not willing to go back to Europe to a place somewhere, you know, in a country, with all due respect, at mid-level. That wouldn't make me and my girlfriend happy. We just couldn't do that after being in big cities like Paris, Istanbul, Toronto and coming from Amsterdam. At that point we decided “OK. Apparently this is it”. So I never announced something like, “hey, I’ve stop playing now.” It just went down quietly and nobody wanted me any more.

Then I transitioned into building my business and that other side of my life. In the end, there are more important things to life than things that make you feel low. I was not feeling happy the last couple years of my playing career, then I found Toronto and I was happy finally. Then I got laid off again. I was done with it.

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God gave me a lot of talent to play football and I made good money with it, but he gave me brains as well. I think this is just a start for me. And football gave me the money to play with, to do something bigger in life, you know"

How do you move on from that? Naturally there’s highs and lows but you need time to adjust to something like that…

So my my mindset, my thought on it is yeah, God gave me a lot of talent to play football and I made good money with it, but he gave me brains as well. I think this is just a start for me. And football gave me the money to play with, to do something bigger in life, you know. I've been making some great investments in the last couple of years. Even the last year here in L.A. Investments are at a level I wouldn’t have dreamed of before, so I just look at it like there's a reason behind everything. I think there's something bigger behind what happens in this life and at the end I will look back and say "It happened for a reason”. I’m not a simple minded football player who goes to training and then comes home to do nothing else. No. I'm too ambitious today for that. Maybe even too ambitious for the football world to understand.

I'm fine with it. Like I said, I'm doing some great stuff here and yeah, I’m meant to do bigger stuff, I think.

What made LA the ideal place to call home now?

A lot of aspects to be honest. Of course, it's a nice place to live. Nice weather, great city. But even business-wise, branding-wise. Everything is here now. This is the centre. It's not a difficult decision.

Can you tell us about Block Party, Bareknuckle and anything else you’re involved with?

Block Party is the first company I started. It was mostly my investment company, which I've been doing for a while already since since Turkey. We made some investments through it. Things like the Hyperloop which is my biggest investment in the Netherlands, which is doing very well. I invested in FazeClan, the biggest Esports team in the world here in L.A. last year. So that was one of the opportunities that blows my mind. Like, wow, if I didn't come to L.A., if I still played football, I would never be able to be investing in FazeClan. Block Party is really just my investment side of things. Initially I tried to open it up for different athletes as well with the idea of taking athletes on my back and say, hey, listen, if I can do this, you can too. There must be other players as well who are interested in investing in startups and doing this cool stuff like like I'm doing.

It's difficult to convince players to put some money in startups which can benefit them a lot. A lot would rather put their money in a car, which you can throw away after two years, than put it in a startup. It’s a difficult crowd to talk to.

I started bareknuckle in Toronto, which is my creative shop, which I do with three other partners as well. Like I already said earlier, I think branding is – in the football world – a very important topic. Things like managing players social media but in a good way. Every body wants to start something like a clothing company and have some side business but its all about the quality which is not really, really out there yet. I feel that because of my experiences both good and bad, I can guide players very well at this point. We have a great team and we have a creative team who make amazing stuff. More of this is coming in the next weeks and months and we will post more about it to show what we’ve been doing for companies and athletes.

These days, it’s not about just delivering a nice picture for you to post but it’s about putting yourself before your audience in a good light.

One of the things I did was when I played in Toronto was around the walk up to the game. You have this walk up to the stadium before a game, it was kind of like a catwalk. Much like they do in the NBA. You walk between the fans and people are taking pictures of you – this has become a thing. So I decided to do that in a retro Man Utd shirt. It was a picture that went around the world and reposted by everybody. I woke up the next day and even Manchester United had reposted it. It doesn’t take much to think differently. This is now just a case study for us. We’re trying to be the creative directors for athletes ultimately.

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Where do you personally look for new trend or inspiration?

Good question. Yeah, see a lot of cool brands now. More and more all the time. To be honest, I'm not really looking for fashion inspiration somewhere, I just dress the way I feel. I really have a strong opinion about clothing as well, really strong taste. I'm not too busy with fashion, to be honest. I'm more busy with my business. This period during the coronavirus, made me realise that after this, the world is going to change. We’re going to view the world in a different way. So at this point, I'm really just sitting at home like, OK. What is gonna be different? What do we need and I really try to start a new business like a real company anticipating all of the changing world. It’s not going to be the same again after this.

We’re just living in an era right now where there's a lot of opportunity. A lot.

I tried to be cool by doing great stuff. By doing smart stuff. I sold BALR and 433 stuff for big profits. I hope I can set an example, in that way. That's why I said I just do my own thing. I'm not going with the trend. And either you like me or you don't. And that's not really my problem. I just do my own thing and hope to be a great example for players.

Where do you set your sights now? Do you feel like you can help next generation athletes find their way into a genuinely creative scene?

I'm still searching for my real world day to day passion at this moment. I'm still trying to to come up with a business at this point which can add value to society in the coming period. Other than that, my creative shop, of course, which we’ll still try to build. We would still like to work with athletes and companies as well. Sports is where I have the knowledge so why not try to help younger players and athletes in a good way. After a year having stopped playing football, I still really haven't found that thing that makes me feel like, “yeah this is it, this is gonna be my thing.” I always thought that when I stopped playing, I was just gonna go on the beach and take a vacation all year long but no, that doesn't satisfy me.

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Daniel Jones

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