Satan is inspecting Hell, or so a much told Romanian joke begins. As he strolls down the various alleys he arrives at a sector where the doomed are being boiled alive in vast cauldrons filled with pitch. Each nation has its own cauldron: Englishmen are boiling together, Frenchmen together, and so on. By each cauldron a horde of fiends are standing guard with tridents in their hoofs. As soon as the doomed cannot take the pain anymore and attempt to clamber out, the fiends sting them with their leisters and cast them back into the oily fires. However, Satan notices that one of the cauldrons is completely unattended. "This is outrageous!" he roars. "You will all regret this! How dare you leave a cauldron unattended, and who are the people boiling inside it?" To which the superintendent promptly replies: "Your Darkness, do not worry! These people are Romanians, and there is no need to guard them. As soon as one of them tries to get out, the others immediately pull him back in."
If something of the humour is lost in translation the sentiment is clear. Razvan Rat thinks it is best expressed in an old proverb repeated from generation to generation on the streets of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca; namely, if the sun doesn't come in through the window, the doctor will come in through the door. It is a cautionary warning about the myopic dangers of parochial insularity and is something West Ham's peripatetic defender has clearly taken to heart. As befits someone born in 1980s Piatra-Olt, a sleepy railway town and road intersection that serves as a gateway to mountain or coast in all directions, the young Razvan always had an eye on broader horizons. "When I was a kid, I dreamed of being famous, signing autographs," he laughs. "I loved football and it was all I ever saw on television." Not that you tend to get much choice when your father is a former football player and so many of your relatives are also playing the game. "My dad noticed that I had the talent and desire," says Rat. "He was a coach in the village where I had been born. That's where I started playing. And then, little by little, I became who I am now."
Who he was going to be was certainly not a goalkeeper like his father, who although never reaching the highest levels played in the Romanian Fist Division or Colegiul Divizionar A. "To be honest, I was not very interested in that," admits Rat. "He [his father] told me some things, but I didn’t listen to him attentively, because I didn’t want to become a goalkeeper." Typically, Rat's inspirations were further afield. "I was rooting for Manchester United since childhood," he says, before revealing his all-time hero to be Ryan Giggs. When he started his career with his hometown club before playing schoolboy and youth-team football for Universitatea Craiova, Constuctorul Craiova, Sporting Pitesti and Cetatea Targu Neamt he did so as a left-sided striker. In fact, Rat played locally for several years and despite never owning a 'proper football' until he was fourteen claims to have no memory of ever doing anything else. "I played football for seven years," he recalls. "Before that I was kicking various ducks, small balls ... as long as I can remember, I've always liked football."
After completing high school, Rat then graduated from the Institute of Physical Education. "Basically, I'm a professor, no joking!" he says with a smile when thinking back to those formative years. By now it was 1998, and aged 17, Rat joined Rapid Bucharest and quickly established himself at the Romanian Premier League outfit under manager Mircea Lucescu. It was he who 'reclassified' his new charge into a marauding left back. "Lucescu is the person who has had the biggest influence on my entire career as a football player," states Rat. "I think if Mister had not found me a new position on the field, if he had not employed me as a full-back, I would not have achieved what I have now." It was the start of a friendship that would last many years and cross several borders. Having made his European debut in a UEFA Cup qualifying round defeat at Armenian club Mika in August 2000, Rat then embarked on a six-month loan spell with FCM Bacau before returning to Bucharest to win the Romanian Cup in 2002 and the Romanian Premier League title the following year.
Then came the move to Ukraine in the summer of 2003- "they sent the money by bank transfer and I moved there. As simple as ABC." Rat would enjoy an illustrious spell of success with Shakhtar Donetsk, lifting a total of 15 trophies - the vast majority of them under the guidance of former mentor and compatriot Lucescu, who took charge at the club in 2004. "It was 10 years ago when I was invited," he states. "I knew little about Shakhtar. I was told that this club has a great future and that the team is striving to become well-known in Europe. So, I decided to try." Rat thinks the Ukrainian league’s level is certainly higher than that of Romanian league. "There are teams in Ukraine, who achieved good results in Europe, primarily Shakhtar," he explains. "As for the fans, it can be said that I have lost contact with the Romanian fans long ago and I viewed Shakhtar fans as my natives. Shakhtar has given me everything I have in my career and in life in general. So I never even wanted to think about another club."
Everything in life includes his Ukrainian wife of six years, Iulia, who he met in Lenin Square one sultry May evening. "I made my choice, and I was not scared that my wife was of a different nationality than me," says Rat. "The heart wants what it wants. Frankly, between us there are sometimes misunderstandings. This is because of the language of communication, mentality, but these are little things." The two married in July 2007 and in early 2011, following many failed attempts and visits to various doctors and several specialty clinics, came daughter Nicole, whose birth Rat describes as the most memorable moment of his life. He insists he has no sporting aspirations for her and believes the most important thing is that she grows up healthy and intelligent. "A smart man would succeed in any field," he says. "And to become an athlete, you have to have a talent in a particular direction: football, volleyball, water polo - it does not matter." Salubrity remains Razvan's biggest remaining wish in life. "It's always been a dream of mine – to live a healthy life," he insists, before confiding that a second child is also a priority. "I already have a girl and now I want a boy to be born to us. Can you make an order?" It is clear that a close-knit family is the thing above all else that gives Rat succour. If pushed he will admit that he thinks it impossible to have many real friends. "All the rest can be considered acquaintances, comrades," he says. "I do not know whether you will agree with me, but the most real friends are your parents. Later, when you grow up, when you have husbands, wives, children, they will also become your friends. And those are almost the only people you can trust, who will support you, no matter how life pans out."
So it was that following ten successful years in Donetsk life unexpectedly saw the 32 year-old deciding to embark on his latest adventure in east London. "It was painful that the Shakhtar team broke up after all those years," he thinks. "But this is life, I also felt the need for fresh blood. It was a very beautiful time with many unforgettable achievements." Rat had been approached by several teams, including Besiktas and Marseille, in the January transfer window and Sam Allardyce declared interest in his services a few months later. "West Ham United are a team with great history, great traditions," he states. "I have big ambitions and West Ham really wanted to see me in their ranks and fought for me. I was very happy with such a kind of trust shown towards me on the part of the club."
More importantly for Rat the move to Upton Park represented the chance to realize a life-long ambition. "I fulfilled the dream of playing in a strong league, maybe the best in the world," he states, before pointing out the decision was made in full consultation with his wife. They both agree that their daughter, at almost three years of age, will find the adaptation the easiest and all are prepared for the vagaries of the English climate. "I know that the weather is fickle in England, but I do not come here to lie on the beach," says Rat. "Basically, everything is just as I expected it to be," he says when giving his first impressions of life in the capital. "I'm fine here in England and adaptation is painless. In everyday terms, there are absolutely no problems. We live on the outskirts of London in a very nice place. You could even say that we live in the woods! Nature, fresh air and no fuss. It is also not far from the stadium. It takes me about fifteen to twenty minutes by car to reach Upton Park. Currently, I am getting used to the left-hand drive."
If the oncoming traffic is not a danger to Razvan's beloved 250,000 euros Ferrari 430, then the same cannot be said about his new team-mates. It’s a staple of most Premier League footballers to have personalised registration plates on their top-of-the-range cars, but this probably wasn’t what he envisaged when they offered to get him some new plates. "I recently bought a new car and the lads have been having some fun at my expense," explained Rat on the club's official website. "As you will know, I have been nicknamed 'Roland' because of the TV character Roland Rat, so the boys put some new number plates on the car with 'RAT 1' and 'ROLAND RAT' written on them, like the real Ratmobile! My car is red, but the Ratmobile was pink and a bit slower, but it is nice."
Suffice to say that although he has not been at Upton Park long the new summer recruit is already a popular character in the East End. "Basically, West Ham is a very friendly team," explains Rat. "All the guys were originally open and they helped me in every way to safely pass the adaption period. Of course, my knowledge of the English language helped me to quickly blend in with the team. A foreigner always finds getting used to life in a new country easier if he or she speaks the language of the local people. I already speak five languages: Russian, English, Spanish, Portuguese and, of course, the Romanian language. Basically, I have a good relationship with all the guys. But I communicate more with the team captain Kevin Nolan. Also, I have developed a friendly relationship with Joe Cole. He and I shared a room during the pre-season training camp."
It was the latter who was responsible for that now ubiquitous soubriquet. "When I first came here Joe Cole showed me a picture with Roland Rat and said ‘This is you’" smiles Rat. "Now most of them call me Roland. I’m getting used to it. It’s funny and the fans here are singing songs about Roland, and now everyone in Romania knows as well." Initially bemused, especially as his surname back home is pronounced Rata and means Duck!, the former Romanian Player of the Year took to watching YouTube clips of the TV puppet and has since grown to like it. "It is funny for me, it's not embarrassing," he says. "There were lots of articles about Roland Rat in Romanian papers and now everyone knows who he is."
If that is one Anglo-Romanian confusion cleared up, Rat is keen to address another; namely, that his new manager is not the raging alcoholic he is commonly held to be in Eastern Europe. "One myth around Sam Allardyce is that he chews gum because he drinks alcohol," laughs Rat. He had to explain to the media back home that Big Sam does not drink alcohol, or more precisely not on match days. "He just has such a habit," Rat told them. "In England, this is normal. Not only the coach, but many players chew gum during games. By the way, one of the coaches of the national team of Romania has the same habit, but in doing so he has never drunk alcohol."
Pitch-side masticating aside, Rat says there are other marked differences between his new boss and Lucescu, the former Romanian footballer and veteran manager of Shakhtar with whom he won the UEFA Cup 2008–09. "They are two different specialists," he states. "Their philosophy and views on football are different. Besides, characteristics of the players of Shakhtar and West Ham are markedly different. It also affects the teams’ playing style and the coaches’ requirements. The English Premier League is different from the Ukrainian Premier League. If the Donetsk club is in many components superior to all of their opponents, West Ham compete with the top teams, respectively, this influences the game."
Interestingly, Rat believes that although the physical demands of the respective leagues vary, the differences are not quite as you might expect. "In my opinion, the work loads in England are not so heavy," he insists. "In fact, perhaps, it may be that in London we work no less, but, at least, the trainings are organised so that the players don’t get tired that much. Allardyce is trying to build training so that the players work with pleasure. Even when we have a fitness training, all the exercises involve ball handling. At Shakhtar, we did more training work without the ball." In Donetsk sessions would last around 80 minutes and would often take place twice a day. Now he has more energy to pursue his other favourite activities such as tennis and ping-pong. Curiously, Rat also professes a fondness for traditional British pub pursuits, including billiards. "In particular, I love watching darts," he enthuses, before also revealing he is something of a gastronome. "My favourite is borsch, but there are some others," he says. "Basically, I'm not very picky. I can eat everything!" Otherwise he does not miss the opportunity to reiterate how proud he is of his wife. In addition to being beautiful and flirtatious, he says, she turned out to be a perfect housewife. "I only eat at home because my wife cooks very well and I like it very much," he smiles.
Although he is now rapidly establishing himself as a first choice member of the West Ham back four, Rat reveals he was never concerned by his personal slow start to the campaign. "Recently, the Irishman Joey O'Brien played in my position," he states. "Generally he is a right back, but due to the fact that last season, the main left-back had his cruciate ligaments damaged, O'Brien was moved to the opposite flank. In principle, West Ham finished the last season well, and the manager decided to leave Joey on the left flank in the opening rounds of this league edition." In truth, Rat says he relishes the competition. "That's the way it should be," he insists. "I try to do everything possible to be in the starting lineup. Our business is to train, and the final word, naturally, is for the manager." Even before the start of the season, says Rat, Allardyce told him that in the opening weeks he would not feature in the starting lineup. "This is normal. He wanted me to feel the atmosphere of the English Premier League. Still, it's a new league for me and a totally different level. The coach explained to me that I should first get a feel for the English Premier League, and then he will field me. I have played around 60 Champions League games and I understand I need to perform at that level."
It is the very reason he has no time for accusations levelled at him in the Romanian media that West Ham represents a regressive move in his career path. "In the English Premier League there are games that can be compared to the matches of the Champions League," he insists. "When you play against Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham or Manchester City, you can feel the level of the Champions League. So my move to West Ham is not a step backward, but a sideway step, so to say." The excitement he feels before each game still remains and it is the reason he knows he made the right choice to move to England. Ultimately, he states, he wants to be one of the key players of the team, to be a first-team regular. "Having moved from a team that is constantly playing in the Champions League, I must prove my high level now at West Ham so I have to put my best foot forward. I expect to play at the level of the English Premier League for more than three years."
That, of course, would take Rat beyond his current contract so exactly how much longer does he intend to play? "For as long as my knees are not worn out," he laughs, before adding he has no intention of slipping into a coach's tracksuit when his time is up. "It depends on what opportunities there will be," he muses. "I could drive a certain business, though not necessarily related to football." But then the multilingual and multifaceted Razvan has consistently marched to the discordant beat of a different drum. Most of his career earnings to date have been invested in Romania where the couple have an extensive property portfolio. On the plot of Rat's once humble home now stands a multi-million pound hotel complex complete with tennis courts, football pitches, outdoor pool (complete with football boot tiling) and a bowling alley that serves as a home and business for extended family. When he is not attending to the restaurant, conference rooms or luxury apartments, his father, Ion Dincă Rat, cruises around in the Chrysler limousine gifted by his son and the locals agree it is probably the most imposing vehicle that ever passed through Piatra Olt or Slatina. While in the family garage patiently sits the BMW sports car the Rats use during their frequent visits back home.
Down the road in Predeal there are newly built hostels for transients and the disadvantaged, while 2004 saw the construction of a new sports complex. "Razvan was the one who wanted to do something in Slatina," explains his father. "He wanted the kids to learn the secrets of football in better conditions than we had it. To get football when he was little, he had to commute 44 miles from Piatra Olt to Craiova. The sports centre offers extraordinary conditions such as hot water, ground cover, equipment, balls and coaches. Razvan sent all his money back home, money that I have used here. He had no childhood, had no joy, but he has tried to make things better for Slatina. It is beautiful." If this is what can happen when you let the sunlight of opportunity through your window maybe we all should draw back the curtains just that little bit wider.
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