This time last year Wesley Benjamin Sneijder was trying to stare down Real Madrid’s sporting director Jorge Valdano. Real were determined to offload the Dutchman to make way for the imminent arrival of Kakà. Sneijder, despite struggling to claim a regular start at the Bernabeu, liked the city (perhaps a little too much; journalists dubbed him Whisky Sneijder), knew he had the talents to merit a big stage and was refusing to budge.
The former Ajax player blinked and eventually ended up Inter, accepting a pay cut and almost sneaking in under the radar while Samuel Eto’o hogged the headlines. Most interisti regarded him as an uninspiring buy (and city rivals Milan apparently had first dibs on him but opted instead for the massively disappointing Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar). Jose Mourinho knew otherwise (of course). With Eto’o having a rather iffy start to the new season, Sneijder sprung to life playing in a classic trequartista role, floating in that space between the advanced strikers and the midfield, with Esteban Cambiasso covering his back and Diego Milito up ahead awaiting instructions. A classic number 10 (or number 10-and-a-half, as smitten Italian journalists have been describing him), he’s a playmaker increasingly seen in the Roberto Baggio/Francesco Totti mould, albeit without the precious natural talents of the former or hair band histrionics of the latter.
It soon became apparent at Inter that Wes was that rare beast, a true team player and match winner, blessed with the Vision Thing; a knack of being able to read the game before anyone else and stretch the boundaries of play, change the rhythm and create opportunities for team mates and himself (letting fly from distance with a fierce right foot). Sneijder has been quietly reinventing that number 10 role. He’s happy to drop deep if needed (witness his second-half performance the other night against Uruguay) and under Mourinho, natch, defending often began high up the pitch, tackling back and doing his bit.
The 26 year old has had a dream season in Serie A and is now having a dream World Cup, in a tournament where few individuals have taken the opportunity to shine. At times it seems his sheer force of will has galvanised a Dutch team which can appear a little pedestrian, even with fellow Real reject Arjen Robben haring around upfront. The Oranje’s public displays of high-fiving unity never quite ring true (Sneijder himself can certainly be quite a spiky character), but the Dutch do seem to have forged an on-field collective spirit that could yet see them overcome the much-fancied Spaniards. Sneijder, a shoe-in for the Golden Boot, will be ready to show his former employees in Madrid just what they’re missing.
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