There are not many players left standing in the world of darts who remember the days of old, but Raymond van Barneveld will never forget what the sport was like before his life changed for ever. The 55-year-old, who is the Netherlands’ greatest tungsten technician, will be part of an exclusive club of two, along with Steve Beaton, to play in 30 world championships – of which he was won five – when he makes his return to the Alexandra Palace for the latest edition of the tournament, which begins on Thursday night.
It is a remarkable feat of longevity in an ever-changing sport, one not even the great Phil Taylor could accomplish. It is a story that began all the way back in 1991, when darts was a very different game to the one that will be given the full bells-and-whistles treatment on Sky Sports and have sold-out crowds at Ally Pally night after night.
The winner will pocket £500,000. At Van Barneveld’s debut at the BDO World Championship, in 1991, he won £1,500 after a first-round defeat to the Australian Keith Sullivan. The eventual winner, Dennis Priestley, collected a modest £26,000.
“Back then we were playing mostly in sports centres and halls, and if we were lucky, sometimes a holiday park,” Van Barneveld says, smiling.
His victory in the 1998 final, when he edged Richie Burnett in one of darts’ greatest finals, changed the sport here and in his native Netherlands. “It was indescribable going home,” he says. “Imagine if the Beatles had ever landed at Schiphol Airport … like that. Not that I’d compare myself to the Beatles because I can’t sing. But all hell broke loose after that win.
“Everyone in Holland was watching. There were no dartboards for sale and darts were out of stock in shops. From that point, everyone at home saw it was possible to earn money out of this game and it’s been growing ever since.
“They even named roses and tulips after me. Insane. Back then, you had to win seven or eight games on the tour to just get £50. Nowadays, if you win one Pro Tour game in the PDC it’s £750. So you could say it’s changed.”
Despite that success, Van Barneveld’s story has not been a straightforward one, headlined by his surprise retirement after the 2020 world championship. Within a year, he had reversed that decision and won a two-year professional tour card to return to the PDC after overcoming a string of personal problems away from the oche that included a health scare.
“There was too much going on in my head,” he says. “I was breaking up with my ex-wife and I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t playing well and I was a nightmare for the people around me.
“The year off was brilliant because I could relax, but because of the pandemic I couldn’t really do much. So I missed the buzz. Then I collapsed, my mum and dad got [Covid-19] and then I collapsed again a couple of months later. It was a frightening time.”
Van Barneveld has worked his way back into the world’s top 32, an impressive feat. That means he has a bye in the first round at Ally Pally, with Ryan Meikle or the four-time women’s world champion, Lisa Ashton, his opponent in round two. Despite surging back up the rankings, it is perhaps no surprise Van Barneveld is unimpressed with his return.
His run to the semi-finals of the Grand Slam of Darts last month, which reinvigorated the belief he is a contender at this year’s worlds, secured his place in the top 32. But Van Barneveld says: “The last two years … really mediocre. When I was in the top four of the world, everything looked easier because you were qualifying for every big tournament. Now, I’m barely qualifying for majors.
“But there’s no pressure on me here. I’m over the moon I did well at the Grand Slam and I showed the whole world I’m still able to do this. I’m showing I can play well and I don’t fear anyone.”
It is clear, despite a frustrating return, that the buzz Van Barneveld craved when he was in retirement has returned. “I played the last three years with earplugs in and it made me a bit lame,” he says. “But I took them out at the Grand Slam and the noise, the adrenaline … it helps.
“That’s what I missed when I retired. Suddenly you were just plain old Raymond van Barneveld, and not the darts player everyone knew. I wanted it back, because you feel like you can’t live without all the hype and attention. It’s brilliant.”
The hype and attention will certainly be present inside Ally Pally on Tuesday when he begins his quest for a sixth world title with Taylor, his great rival of the 2000s, among his supporters. This one, despite all the achievements that have gone before, would undoubtedly rank as his greatest given where he was two years ago.