Towering Babel unawed by Liverpool's football temple

Ryan Babel still lives alone in Liverpool - or accompanied only by the Lord, as he sees it - but he needs company. "We're still deciding whether my mother will join me, or my girlfriend," the footballer confides. "In Holland I hadn't moved out of my parents' home yet. That's a big step." Can he boil an egg? "No, that doesn't work."

Though Liverpool paid £12m for him this summer, the Dutch striker still seems something of a naïf. Above that big body is a little boyish face, with slight buckteeth and the faintest beard. His hair is shaven into a neat square.

Babel is 20, but you would guess him to be younger. Talking in the Dutch national team's beach hotel beside the dunes the other day, he offered a refreshingly innocent view of England and its football - a game he has all the qualities to conquer.

Babel was born in Amsterdam, but his accent reveals family origins in Surinam, the former Dutch colony on South America's northern tip. There are only 70,000 Amsterdam Surinamese, but they produce more footballers per capita than possibly any other ethnic group in the world. Their stars - Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids - would staff half a world 11, and behind them are many other Dutch internationals and hundreds of good professionals.

Babel joined Ajax Amsterdam aged 11. Everyone saw his gifts - the big kid who moved like a gymnast and did wonders with the ball - but he rarely scored. Nobody could quite work out what he was for. Criticism was unceasing. Two Ajax youth coaches told me about a kid by the weird name of Babel, who, when the legend Marco van Basten had arrived to help coach his team, remained entirely blasé. "Aren't you pleased Marco has come?" one coach asked him. Babel just shrugged beneath his baseball cap. "Mwaaa," he said.

Nonetheless, by 18 he had become the youngest man to score for Holland since the war. Yet when Van Basten, by this time Holland's manager, inquired after his career plans, Babel replied: "I'm going to go into music, coach." A devoted rapper, he has approximately 5,000 songs on his iPod.

In the beach hotel, Babel recalls the chastisements of Ajax's coach Henk ten Cate, another Surinamer. If Babel got too intricate trying to dribble past a defender, Ten Cate would scream: "Ryan, you're the fastest in Holland, dammit! Just kick the ball and run."

Babel never became a key player for Ajax, but over this summer he improved quickly. "Purely because of confidence," he told me. In June he led Holland to victory in the European Under-21 Championships, during which the Dutch football journal Hard Gras noted this vignette: Babel, at a gymnastics training session, standing on a balancing bar with a ball on his foot.

Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's manager, had had Babel watched since the boy was 16. This summer Benitez signed him. Entering Liverpool's legendary Anfield stadium, Babel was unawed. "At first it did nothing to me. It still doesn't." Doesn't he like legendary grounds? "It doesn't matter to me. I feel happiest if the stadium looks decent." He does admit to touching the legendary "This is Anfield" sign before taking the field, but only because his team-mates do.

His bigger priority in Liverpool was finding a church. "I drove past a couple, but in principle you can't understand people in Liverpool. It's a very strange dialect."

Stranger still were British taboids. Benitez, who is "like an uncle", instructed him: "If they ask something, they want to hear A, but you think B, and you say C."

In training, Babel noticed that Liverpool's players didn't berate each other as was customary at Ajax. If he screamed, "Where's your control?" everyone looked at him uncomprehendingly. Another surprise was how much Liverpool practised defending. "We are very compact, and then we come out with two, three passes, like madmen, and shoot."
Yet judging by his first, good performances, he has Benitez's licence to run with the ball. "Of course. When it comes to attacking in matches, he has said almost nothing to me. I have tasks only when we defend."

At Ajax, Babel had learned his trademark but ineffective "hip shot", struck from underneath the body with almost no backlift, from Gaston Sangoy, an obscure Argentine reserve. At Liverpool, he imitates a more celebrated team-mate. "I just use Steven Gerrard as my shooting coach. He really can shoot."

Physically, surely, Babel is already complete? "A big body doesn't mean you're strong. I understand from Robin van Persie at Arsenal that Julio Baptista isn't strong at all, even though he's a massive guy." Is Babel strong? "I feel strong."

Are Liverpool, top of the league, strong enough to win their first title since 1990? "At first, when people said we had to be champions, I thought, 'Well, I don't know about that.' But now we're growing." Not half as fast as Babel is, though.

Copyright - The Financial Times Limited 2007

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