Bryan Ruiz's success at Fulham shatters soccer stereotypes
Bryan Ruiz has come into his own after joining Fulham and the Premier League
Ruiz set up all three goals for Clint Dempsey's hat trick in a 4-0 win over Charlton
Despite analysts' desire to fit players into neat categories, Ruiz breaks the mold
It usually goes one of two ways when a Premier League club signs a forward previously prolific in Holland: He could be a bust, like Mateja Kezman and Afonso Alves, or a hit, like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Luis Suarez. The path is a well-trodden one. In the last 20 years, only three forwards who top-scored in the Eredivisie have not played in England (Nikos Machlas, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who may yet end up in the Premier League, and Bjorn Vleminckx, last season's top scorer).
The most recent player to make the move from Holland is Bryan Ruiz, Fulham's £10.6m summer signing from FC Twente. He scored 24 goals when Twente, under English coach Steve McClaren, won the 2010 Dutch league, the first in its history. (It was Suarez who top-scored that season, with 35 goals, as his Ajax side scored 43 more goals than Twente. However, Ruiz's run included the Eredivisie's quickest hat trick since 1958, a four-minute treble in a 3-0 win over Sparta.)
Ruiz missed Fulham's 5-0 win over Wolves last week with an illness, but returned against Aston Villa on Saturday, coming on as a substitute to replace Andy Johnson. The emergence of Pavel Pogrebnyak as Bobby Zamora's replacement at center-forward --- he has scored five goals in his first four appearances --- has been central to Fulham's recent run of form, but before the Russian striker arrived, Ruiz was a pivotal part of the offensive setup.
His integration took longer than Pogrebnyak's did, as Ruiz started eight of his first nine Fulham appearances as a substitute. But he came into his own as winter kicked in: He started matches on the right of midfield, with license to cut inside, and played key roles in Fulham's impressive wins over Liverpool (1-0, Dec. 5) and Arsenal (2-1, Jan. 2). In Fulham's 4-0 FA Cup win over Charlton Athletic on Jan. 7, Ruiz set up all three goals for Clint Dempsey's hat trick. Last month, after Dempsey scored against West Bromwich Albion, the American pointed to Ruiz in front of the fans as if asking them to acknowledge his clever reverse pass which created the opportunity.
Ruiz says his run of form boils down to confidence, admitting that his teammates give him the ball more now than they did at the onset of the season.
"When I arrived, they didn't know who I was or what I could do," he told Costa Rican newspaper Al Dia. "But now they trust me and I'm getting used to the rhythm of English football." He also bulked up to cope with the physical demands and claims to enjoy defending and tackling, "even if it is not my natural game."
"He brings something new to our team and makes even the best teams feel uncomfortable," John Arne Riise, another new signing, echoed to the Fulham Chronicle after Ruiz scored an insouciant chipped goal in a December win over Bolton Wanderers.
Ruiz is not an out-and-out forward; his role is closer to that of Suarez at Ajax, either creating chances for others with his skill and movement or taking them himself. But the joy of Ruiz is precisely that he is unlike anyone else in the Premier League: he can't be pinned down or pigeonholed into any obvious category of player.
He is a bit of everything (and sometimes, a bit of nothing). The Independent's Jack Pitt-Brooke summed up our desperation to fit players into neat categories when he wrote: "I'm convinced that Bryan Ruiz is the Elano/Berbatov hybrid we have all been waiting for."
It has been a tough journey for Ruiz. He grew up in Alajuelita, a poor district in Costa Rica's capital city San Jose, and began his career at local side Alajuelense. When he was 16, coach Juan Angel Bustos repeatedly dropped him from the youth team and he wondered if he would ever make it. Two years later, he was part of Alajuelense's 2005 title-winning side -- it also won the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the UNCAF Cup, both forerunners to the CONCACAF Champions League, as it is now.
Ruiz made his international debut for Costa Rica in the 2005 Gold Cup, but it was not enough to convince coach Alexandre Guimaraes to select him for the 2006 World Cup. "Everyone thought I would be in the squad apart from one man, and that was Guimaraes," Ruiz told La Nacion. "It was tough for me, but fortunately I was given a second chance when, that same summer, Gent signed me."
Ruiz was made captain in his second season with the Belgian club, which finished sixth (he scored 11 goals) and then fourth (12 goals). Twente bought him for €5m and, playing as a right-winger with Kenneth Perez as number 10 and Blaise N'Kufo as center-forward (for Perez and N'Kufo, read Moussa Dembele and Pavel Pogrebnyak at Fulham), Ruiz was a revelation. His 24 goals included a vital winner over second-placed Ajax in November 2009 and seven goals in his last eight games. Twente edged its Amsterdam rival by one point for the title. He also provided 18 assists for his teammates.
"I learnt at Twente that good players win matches, but only good teams win titles," Ruiz told Marcaje Individual. "But everyone on the team knows that Twente didn't win the title only because of me."
"People here in Costa Rica see Bryan as an idol, as there are so few Costa Rican players who are successful in Europe, and he is the best of them," Al Dia journalist Esteban Valverde told SI.com. "He is also very humble, and showed he has not forgotten his roots by returning to Alajuelita when he became a Dutch champion."
The only blot on his CV is with the national team, for whom Ruiz has played 47 games and scored nine goals, the last of which came in a 2-2 draw against USA in October 2009. Since then, he has played 16 games, including an unsuccessful Gold Cup campaign last summer and last month's 1-0 win over Wales in the Gary Speed Memorial Match, and not scored. It hasn't helped that Costa Rica has undergone six coaching changes since 2009: Each one changed his position, asked for something different and failed to get the best out of him.
The same cannot be said of Jol, who, as coach of the Ajax side that Twente beat forthe title, knew all too well what damage Ruiz could wreak. "I expect him to do what he's been doing this season because that's what he did on a weekly basis at Twente," Jol said at a recent press conference.
Ruiz is also forcing us to ditch our lazy stereotypes of players. He does not fit into any obvious category except for the one into which Fulham fans have fervently adopted: the cult hero.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.