When sporting legends call time on their careers, their impact is measured predominantly by their haul of silverware, and the vast majority of darters will be envious of Raymond van Barneveld’s extensive trophy cabinet.
Yet having also put darts on the map in the Netherlands whilst inspiring a generation of European talent in the process, his legacy remains just as prominent.
As Van Barneveld celebrates his 53rd birthday today – his first since retiring from the sport in December – I’ve taken a trip down memory lane to reflect on his ground-breaking achievements and influence on the sport with two men who know the doyen of Dutch darts better than most.
Jaco van Bodegom is one of Van Barneveld’s closest confidants and has been his manager since 2015, where they’ve shared some incredible highs and lows.
RTL7 commentator Jacques Nieuwlaat – the voice of Dutch darts – has also worked closely alongside the five-time world champion for almost three decades, whilst Barney was best man at Nieuwlaat’s wedding in 1993.
The Den Haag ace rose to prominence in the mid 1990’s, becoming the first Dutchman to win a match at the BDO World Championship in 1993, later losing out to Richie Burnett in a thrilling 1995 final.
Nevertheless, Barney gained retribution with victory over Burnett in 1998 before subsequently defending his title 12 months later, and Nieuwlaat attributes the sudden darting boom in the Netherlands to that success.
“If you look at darts in the Netherlands at the end of the last century, we had a few thousand enthusiastic players in the Dutch Darts Organisation. After Raymond’s wins in 1998 and 1999 that number multiplied by ten to over 40,000 registered players.
“In the Netherlands, for a TV sport to be successful you need Dutchmen to compete for the top prizes and that is exactly what RVB did. Even in the latter years of his career, in almost every competition he played he was on the bookmakers list of favourites. If RVB played, the ratings were higher.”
Van Barneveld may not have enjoyed the dominance of Taylor or Van Gerwen at their peak, although his remarkable longevity illustrates why he’s so revered; particularly on home soil.
As well as winning 26 major titles, he’s also featured in a whopping 13 World Championship semi-finals – a record only usurped by 16-time world champion Phil Taylor.
“The reason he played for as long as he did was the drive to keep winning. If you lose the hunger, you are done as a professional athlete,” insisted Nieuwlaat.
“The reason for his longevity lies in his throwing style and action. He throws his darts effortlessly and that is why you can stay consistent for a long time. I don’t think RVB dropped off if you look at his stats. The rest just got better.”
Van Barneveld’s status as an all-time great remains intact, but his universal popularity is equally significant. Many sporting legends rarely receive such adulation, as they appear infallible in pursuit of glory, although RvB’s mercurial nature could be compelling yet infuriating in equal measure.
“He is without doubt the most loved player ever in The Netherlands,” Nieuwlaat continues. “I think it has to do with the fact he is less polished than MVG for instance. RVB’s reactions are raw and emotional, therefore as a fan you personalise yourself more with Raymond than with many others.
“One friend of mine once told me: ‘If Michael loses or wins, he loses or wins, if Raymond loses, you lose, but when Raymond wins, you win too and that’s the best feeling ever’. Maybe that captures his popularity better than anything else.”
The five-time world champion was renowned for rising to the occasion and the unwavering support of his ‘Barney Army’ inspired him to countless victories over the years, although Van Bodegom concedes his desperation to perform for his fans became a hindrance during his farewell year.
“Raymond plays for his fans, his family and for his country. He always thinks he is letting people down and he feels so much extra pressure. He couldn’t enjoy Ahoy [last year]. He was standing there with tears in his eyes the first time, because he just couldn’t understand – what was happening?
“The last two years he could never enjoy it anymore. When you are not enjoying the game, I think it’s time for you to step down and do exhibitions and try and be the person you really are.”
“When I’m on holiday with him, when we’re away from darts, he’s so much more relaxed. He’s a fantastic guy. He has a great sense of humour, he’s very generous and we laugh so much. We have so much fun.”
Their formidable partnership began just over five years ago, with the pair originally meeting years earlier after Van Bodegom organised sponsorship for former UK Open champion Roland Scholten, who won the PDC World Pairs with Barney way back in 1997.
Van Bodegom admits he wasn’t initially a huge darts fan, with Tennis and Football his main sports of choice. Yet even from a young age, he was still able to acknowledge the profound impact Van Barneveld had on sport within the Netherlands.
“When I was growing up, I saw him on television. I was amazed by how he could perform with such accuracy in front of – with respect – hostile crowds.
“We never watched darts in Holland, but because of Raymond, everybody started watching darts. As a family we were standing in front of the TV and when they zoom in on double 18 or double 16, and the dart went wide, we were cursing.
“Then when his opponent was throwing for a match or a leg, we were just shouting ‘miss, miss’ at the television. We were just cheering for him, even when we didn’t really know who the guy was.
“Then when he became world champion for the first time, it was like the whole country could only think of Raymond van Barneveld and darts. It was unbelievable.”
Van Barneveld’s 1998 success laid the foundations for an era of dominance within the BDO system, which saw the Dutchman scoop 14 individual major titles – including four Lakeside titles – before he opted to cross the darting divide in 2006.
Barney outlined his targets upon switching to the PDC, declaring that he wanted to beat Phil Taylor, achieve a televised nine-darter and become world number one.
Astonishingly, he achieved all three ambitions in the space of 18 months and his captivating Circus Tavern victory against Taylor changed the entire darting landscape, as Nieuwlaat explains.
“Why is there a lot of money in the PDC nowadays? The foundation lies in the mid 2000’s with the great Van Barneveld vs Taylor rivalry. That’s where money grew in darts.
“That’s why there are so many professionals in darts now. In short, every professional player in the world at this moment and especially in the Netherlands owes something to Raymond.”
Having endured a number of near misses between 2008-2012, Van Barneveld broke his major drought with a spectacular Grand Slam triumph against Van Gerwen, before defeating Taylor and MvG on an unforgettable evening at the O2 Arena to fulfil his Premier League destiny in 2014.
Van Bodegom joined forces with Barney less than 12 months later and this coincided with RvB’s stunning Premier League revival, where he completed the league double over Taylor and defeated MvG en route to securing a play-off spot, having been staring down the barrel of elimination.
“He said please come with me sometime, because I think we have the same interests, the same humour and he was right,” Van Bodegom added. “I went with him to the Premier League in Exeter in 2015 and he lost that night against Kim Huybrechts.
“Kim played really well. After that match, he was bottom of the table and I said to him tell me: Who are you going to lose to in the next seven matches? ‘What do you mean, going to lose to?’ he said.
‘I don’t have to lose to anybody you know. Every night I can win against everybody’. I said: ‘Okay, let’s make an agreement. We will look at it one game at a time, and he never lost another match anymore and made the semi-finals. That was Raymond.”
The final chapters of Van Barneveld’s illustrious career admittedly weren’t littered with the level of success that the Barney Army had become accustomed to, yet the Dutch darting deity still conjured up some magical moments.
He produced a series of Rocky Balboa comebacks at the World Championships, inspired Premier League displays in Rotterdam and secured multiple World Cup titles for the Netherlands alongside Van Gerwen.
As both Van Bodegom and Nieuwlaat reference, representing his country meant so much to RvB. The five-time world champion wore the Dutch shirt with immense pride and that pride was reciprocated by his legion of supporters, and his impact on the sport won’t be forgotten any time soon.
Favourite RvB memories?
He was the best man at my wedding in 1993 so that will always be special to me. Not because he is the famous darts player but back then we were best friends. I am proud that after all these years we are still good friends.
We travelled together to Lakeside in 1993 when he became the first Dutchman to win a match at a World Championship, that was special for multiple reasons.
We both got to meet our darting heroes without knowing he was going to become one. It goes without saying that his first Lakeside win was special, but my best memory from him playing was the 2007 final on which I commentated.
Jaco van Bodegom
The first night in Ahoy. I had goosebumps and it was like I was overwhelmed by what was happening. It’s the same with Michael [van Gerwen]. You wish them all the best, hope they get the acknowledgement for who they are and that night, everything came together.
The second big memory is when Ray won at the World Championship against Michael van Gerwen in 2016 and then the quarter-finals in 2017 against Phil Taylor.
I knew these matches on that stage meant so much to him, and to see that absolute joy in him, and to see him understand that he can still perform like that, it made me very emotional.
Feature Image: Action Plus