By Stefan Coerts | Dutch Football Editor
May 13, 2012 was a memorable day for the 22,000 fans who attended Malaga's final La Liga match of the season at home against Sporting Gijon. Not only did they see the hosts qualify for the Champions League play-offs for the first time in their history, but they also witnessed the last 15 minutes as a professional footballer of one of the greatest strikers of his generation. Ruud van Nistelrooy came off the bench in the 75th minute to replace Jose Rondon, only to announce his retirement at a press conference one day later.
When the Dutchman started his professional career in 1993 at Eerstedivisie side Den Bosch, there were few signs that he would turn into a goalscoring machine. Van Nistelrooy mainly featured as a central midfielder, and not until his fourth season - after being shifted into a forward position - did he manage to score more than 10 league goals in one campaign.
He earned himself a transfer to Heerenveen in the summer of 1997, and joined Eredivisie giants PSV only one year later. In Eindhoven, the now 35-year-old quickly developed into a world-class striker. Van Nistelrooy netted 60 goals in 57 Eredivisie appearances, winning two top-scorer trophies, as well as one league title.
A move to Manchester United appeared to be on the cards ahead of the 2000-01 campaign, but the transfer fell through when Van Nistelrooy ruptured cruciate knee ligaments. Sir Alex Ferguson would not forget about the Netherlands international, though, and lured him to Old Trafford the next year after he had fully recovered.
|VAN NISTELROOY'S CAREER STATS
Real Madrid (2006-2010)
There was more to come, though, in the following seasons as he helped United to the Premier League title in 2002-03 with 25 goals in 34 appearances, enough to be crowned the league's top-scorer. In the first half of the noughties, the North Brabant-native was undoubtedly the most clinical finisher in world football. When he had a chance, he just didn't miss.
The goals would continue to flow and Ruud soon became the Red Devils' all-time European top-scorer, also winning one FA Cup and a League Cup along the way. He netted a total of 150 goals for United, all but one from inside the penalty area. Van Nistelrooy's impact at United can be illustrated by the words of his former team-mate Gerard Pique, who today tweeted: "It was an honour to share United's dressing room with one of the best strikers ever! Thanks for all, Ruud!"
In the summer of 2006, Van Nistelrooy switched to Real Madrid for €24m. The prolific hitman had by then already proven his worth at international level, having found the net four times at Euro 2004 to help Oranje to the semi-finals at his first major tournament for his country. Van Nistelrooy failed to make an impact at the 2006 World Cup as he scored just once in three games, and was dropped for the round of 16 match against Portugal. A difficult relationship with then national coach Marco van Basten even forced him to temporarily retire from international football.
Things went much smoother at Madrid, where the attacker immediately became a real crowd favourite. A hat-trick against Levante and four goals versus Osasuna helped him to yet another top-scorer trophy in his first year at the Blancos, while also winning the league title. Van Nistelrooy's success story continued the next season as he scored 16 more Liga goals and Madrid successfully defended their league title.
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Van Nistelrooy solved his difficulties with Van Basten ahead of Euro 2008 and played some of the best football of his career in the group games against Italy and France. However, Oranje were then upset by Russia in the quarter-finals, and the striker's career would only go downward after this disappointment.
He missed the majority of the 2008-09 campaign due to a knee injury, and would eventually leave the Santiago Bernabeu for Hamburg in January 2010. Although he still netted a number of important goals for the Bundesliga outfit, his German adventure was far from a success, prompting him to move on again in June 2011.
After one year of warming the bench at Malaga, Van Nistelrooy has now decided that the time has come to call it a day.
With 35 goals in 70 international appearances, the attacker is number three in Oranje's all-time scoring rankings. His record of 347 competitive goals in 589 official club appearances, and best goals per game ratio in the history of the Champions League (0,73) makes him one of the best strikers of his generation. Van Nistelrooy's retirement is a sad day for football, but defenders and goalkeepers all over the world will secretly breathe a sigh of relief.
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