How Wesley Sneijder fuelled a football awakening like few others

How Wesley Sneijder fuelled a football awakening like few others

WE ALL HAVE OUR FOOTBALL MEMORIES. As fans, we cherish them. We need them, whether they’re good or bad. They have shaped our journey. For those of a certain vintage, the apex of their misty-eyed nostalgia is James Richardson introducing Football Italia on Channel 4. For others, it’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sending a close-range shot into the roof of the net to clinch Manchester United’s historic treble. Then there is that Sergio Agüero goal. Or Zinedine Zidane saying goodnight to Marco Materazzi  – and being hailed as a French hero as a result.

Memories: as in any part of life, they inform our opinion of the beautiful game. Here’s one of mine.

It’s 2 July 2010. In the heart of Amsterdam, thousands descend upon Museumplein, a charming square in the cultural hub of the city. Here, you can find the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Concertgebouw within a stone’s throw of each other. It’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon mosey. There’s usually a mix of coffee, family time and ambience. There’s also the art. My first time seeing the Dutch masters was memorable.

I’d never really appreciated art, but I was dumbfounded by the sheer size and grandeur of those paintings. If you go, I challenge you to not marvel at The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, a 17th-century masterpiece depicting the signing of the treaty which ended the Netherlands’ eight-year struggle with Spain. The portraits of 77 men came from the meticulous vision of Gerard ter Borch, and truly is something.

On that stiflingly hot Friday afternoon, though, a sea of orange came to Museumplein for a different type of artist. They came to see Bert van Marwijk’s Oranje in the World Cup quarter-final. Their opponents were footballing artists, too. Usually clad in that unmistakable canary yellow, Brazil were the blue-shirted immovable object to an irresistible orange force.

There was Arjen Robben, a twisting provocateur on the wing. There was Robin van Persie, the elegant predator leading the line. The Seleção had their fair share of talent, too, in the form of the dribbling dynamo Robinho and Kaká, the playmaking whizz whose ingenuity could change a game in an instant. 

The match took place 14,000 miles away from the Netherlands, at the Nelson Mandela Stadium, a yawning monstrosity in Port Elizabeth. Yet, for the thousands packed into Museumplein, watching events unfold on a giant screen, it felt as though it was much, much closer. In the middle of it all, I tried not to get carried away in sheer exhilaration. I’d never seen such flag-waving euphoria. I’d never seen so many nervous faces. I’d never seen so much orange. Even in Belfast.

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As kick-off loomed, I felt the Heineken-sinking individual to my right take a tense turn. The pre-match patter petered out. Suddenly the sun felt a little stronger, the smell of Kush a little more intense. I turned around to see an endless stream of orange, broken up by random clusters of yellow. I turned back. There was an eerie silence. The match had started.

It didn’t start well. There were impassioned cries for a penalty when, in the opening minute, Brazil centre-back Juan barged Van Persie out of the way to clear Dirk Kuyt’s cross. Nine minutes later, it got worse. Felipe Melo measured a through ball to Robinho, who coolly slotted past Maarten Stekelenburg. Juan missed a chance to increase Brazil’s lead before Kaká produced a flying stop from the Dutch goalkeeper. The tension pervading Museumplein was inescapable – even for someone with no allegiance or connection to the Netherlands. 

Then, after the interval, the Netherlands and one Wesley Sneijder came alive. The equaliser came after 53 minutes and Sneijder’s boot had as much to say as anyone. Receiving a free-kick square from Robben, the Inter midfielder launched a cross into Brazil’s penalty area. The quality of the cross was such that it required defending. Melo – the architect of Brazil’s opener – rose only for the ball to skim off the top of his head and into the net.

Fifteen minutes later, the Dutch struck the fatal blow to the pre-tournament favourites’ hopes. Robben’s corner was flicked on at the near post by Kuyt and there was Sneijder – the smallest man in the box – to head into the top corner.

At Museumplein, it was pandemonium. After the ball flew into the net, waves of orange jump and down in scenes of intoxicating joy. The temptation was to celebrate as if I, too, were Dutch. I happily succumbed to it, resulting in an afternoon of high-spirited ecstasy. The crescendo at full-time was like nothing I’d ever heard.

For so many, Sneijder was the star of that World Cup. With five goals to his name, he headed the list for the Golden Ball with Spain’s David Villa. They both missed out, with Diego Forlán’s outstanding displays for Uruguay enough to earn him the prestigious accolade.

While seeing Forlán’s quality recognised was stirring, Sneijder will always be the one who responsible for that afternoon in Museumplein. From that point, I’ve always taken a special interest in him. He’d given me an unforgettable afternoon in Amsterdam, but he near sent me into hysteria in Berlin a year later. While on holiday, I read that he was linked with a move to United. Once that was on my radar, I relentless scoured the transfer columns, excitedly hoping for further updates.

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The headline I’d been waiting for never came and, as the new season approached, word filtered through major news outlets that United had given up hope of signing him. Samir Nasri snubbing Old Trafford for Manchester City and United’s failed pursuit of Tottenham’s Luka Modrić were frustrating, but they couldn’t match the level of disappointment at Sneijder’s non-arrival.

He eventually left Inter in January 2013, but joined Galatasaray. At 28, he still had time to become a Premier League star, or try to find redemption in Spain. Instead he chose Turkey, and while his public refusal to take a pay cut at the San Siro before agreeing to a lucrative contract with Gala makes it easy to raise an eyebrow at such a career move, the path he forged in Istanbul was one of success.

During his four-and-a-half years at the Türk Telecom Arena, there were flashes of trademark brilliance. His goal to send Galatasaray through to the Champions League knockout round at the expense of Juventus was a touch of class, killing Didier Drogba’s knockdown with one touch before finding the corner with his second. With Inter occupying a special place in his heart, sending the Old Lady crashing out was particularly satisfying for him.

It’s easy to drool at the flickers of technical genius, but Sneijder’s career in Turkey was far from blemish-free. There were constant questions over his fitness. At times, he went missing. The technique was always there, but perhaps the appetite was not. Plagued by fitness issues, Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal said he was surprised to see Sneijder show up to the 2014 World Cup still in shape. 

Van Gaal, who took over from Van Marwijk in 2012, told journalists in August 2013 that Sneijder needed to regain his fitness before being assured of a place at the World Cup in Brazil. Van Gaal’s 4-3-3 saw plenty of game time for Jordy Clasie, Georginio Wijnaldum and Rafael van der Vaart. However, when an injury ruled Kevin Strootman out of the tournament, Sneijder was the one who stepped up to earn his place in Van Gaal’s rejigged 5-3-2 system.

After clinching maximum points in a group containing Spain, Chile and Australia, Sneijder excelled in the last 16 against Mexico. Trailing 1-0, the midfielder produced an unanswerable to strike to equalise in the 88th-minute, the ball screaming past the keeper Guillermo Ochoa and into the bottom corner. In the 94th-minute, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored a nerveless penalty to advance to the quarter-final.

But it was Sneijder’s dead aim that gave Netherlands hope in Fortaleza just like it had four years earlier in Port Elizabeth. Unfortunately, his goal came after 87 minutes of relative anonymity. Although he once again proved his mettle in stepping up at the crucial moment, his influence over 90 minutes was noticeably weaker.

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It was emblematic of his gradual decline which, in the three years since, has only intensified. There are still arbitrary moments, but he has often looked a pensive shadow of his former self, a mercurial baller falling out of love with the game and toiling to unlock defences when it once came so freely.

It leaves us with the memory of the best Sneijder, the languid but devastating creator who struggled when he lost a mentor and a leader in José Mourinho. You feel as though he didn’t receive the same level of attention from Rafa Benítez, the Portuguese’s successor at Inter, or Van Gaal, or any of his several coaches at Galatasaray, including Fatih Terim, Roberto Mancini and Cesare Prandelli.

Perhaps one of Dick Advocaat’s most significant acts as Netherlands manager in what has been a hellish period for Dutch football was to drop Sneijder. It happened one night in September. At 33, Sneijder was informed by the veteran tactician that he had to play his way into the Nice team before could do the same for his country. For Sneijder, it either did or did not lead to a week of intense soul-searching. With him, it could be either.

Once the supreme technician in a Dutch golden era, his career is now petering out. In a transfer window that saw Neymar move to Paris Saint-Germain and Leonardo Bonucci make a controversial switch from Juventus to AC Milan, Sneijder’s next move – from Galatasaray to Nice – flew somewhat under the radar. Unfortunately, it’s a measure of his fading relevance in European football. Whereas he was once a stalwart of transfer speculation, his latest move was a mere footnote on the epic business that took place in the summer.

But we still remember Sneijder as one of the most revered midfielders of his generation. After a strangely unfulfilling two-year stint at Real Madrid – an environment where Sneijder’s creativity should shine through – Mourinho did everything in his power to sign him for Inter in 2009. From there, Sneijder grew to become one of the most effective playmakers on the planet, revelling in the lone creator’s role as the Nerazzurri clinched a historic treble in perhaps Mourinho’s crowning achievement.

Then, just weeks after guiding the Italian giants to European supremacy, it was that stunning South African adventure. And, while Van Marwijk’s team ultimately finished runners-up to an utterly insuperable Spain, Sneijder had an outstanding individual tournament to add to his Coppa Italia, Serie A and Champions League titles in the space of a whirlwind 67 days.

His performances in South Africa unquestionably cemented his place as one of the most elegant yet effective midfielders this side of the millennium, sparkling as the most diminutive orchestrator at the end of a year when practically everything he touched turned to gold. That’s the Sneijder I’ll always remember.

By Matt Gault  

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