Arjen Robben, after the last WC qualification game vs Sweden: “The man of glass went on the longest….”
The Big Four are no more. Sneijder might play a fringe part for us in the future, but Van der Vaart, most likely Van Persie and Robben are no longer going to wear the orange.
We didn’t just lose a couple of world class players, the Big Four, we lost our self-esteem.
It’s 2010, Oranje up for the semi-finals vs Uruguay. Sneijder is being interviewed, but the cocky Utrechter turns the tables. He asks the question: “Do you believe we can win it?” The sports reporter hesitates… Sneijder: “Ok, you doubt me? I will convince you. Not with words.” And he pointed at Robin van Persie. Then he pointed at Van der Vaart. Then at Robben. He looked the reporter in the eye and pointed at himself. “Tell your wife you’ll be coming home after the finals.”
Sneijder got up and walked away. And raised both arms in triumph, with two fingers up on both hands. Four.
Two days later, Oranje made it to the finals.
Earlier that year, he did the same. He asked the question of the sports reporter: “Is there a name for it when you win the treble AND the World Cup?”. He just won the title, the national cup in Italy and the Champions League. He played against Robben and Van Bommel. These three would get to the national team training camp late, but brimming with confidence. Robben and Sneijder talked at the trainings camp, about their mutual debuts for Oranje against Portugal. “We never made it far in 2006 and 2008 because our aim was to survive these groups of death. Getting through was the key thing. This time, it’s different. This time we want to go all the way. We told each other constantly: we are not leaving until we played the finals. We will go to South Africa to win it!”
Those were the days. Not just because we had these four Top Guns. But because we had personalities in the team. Think Nigel de Jong, Mark van Bommel, Dirk Kuyt. Players with a voice and an opinion. In 2010, the players wanted to win it. In 2014, Louis van Gaal squeezed it out of them.
The development process of the Big Four was fascinating. And also because of their temperaments. When self consciousness and top quality meet, ego is lurking. And in particular, when certain players are going for the same position. It was never a thing, for Sneijder and Van der Vaart. Best mates since their youth. And they still are close. Bert van Marwijk demanded it: mutual respect and acceptance. Trust each others qualities and skills and cover for the weaker aspects. A collective consciousness. And all this got processed and came to the fore in 2010. If it wasn’t for Casillas toe, Holland would have had the cup.
They shared their talent and confidence, but the Big Four also never forgot their roots. When Van Persie scored that phenomenal header vs Spain, in 2014, he credited his old youth coach Aad Putters, at Excelsior, as the man who taught him to head the ball. And every year, Robin participates in the youth tournament carrying his name. Just like Rafael van der Vaart visits his own youth tournament in Beverwijk, with his dad behind the bar counter and his mum selling entry tickets. Arjen Robben recently produced a video tape to ask the fans of FC Groningen to support his old club, even in these dire times. And Sneijder financially supports an entourage of family and friends, to make them part of his success. They’re multi millionaires but in their hearts they’re still street players.
Robben, the dribble king from Bedum, Sneijder the focused leader, Van der Vaart the old-fashioned virtuoso and Van Persie the elegant artist, who’d do the grocery shopping in Kralingen with a ball glued to his left foot. They love the game, from their youth right to the highest level.
But after that failed tournament of 2012, in the run up to the World Cup Brazil, the rust started to show. Van der Vaart was already out. He played his last international game in 2013. Van Gaal harassed Sneijder about his fitness. Van Persie admitted he played with constant pain. Only Robben, with him was it the opposite. The injury prone winger was in the form of his life and carried Oranje through the World Cup 2014. Sneijder and Van Persie just made it. When Wesley Sneijder had himself tested by the Dutch squad medical team, Van Gaal thought the equipment was faulty and ordered a re-test. That is how fit Sneijder was. Van Persie withstood the knee complaints and had his most productive tournament ever: 4 goals. In that sensational 1-5 win over Spain, all three players were involved: two goals Van Persie, two goals Robben and Sneijder with two assists. Robben: “Whenever Sneijder gets played in, I’m on my bike. Even if he still has work to do. Because I know he’ll find the gap to pass the ball exactly where I need it.” It’s how it went in Salvador, with Sergio Ramos crawling on all fours, watching how Robben scored. And in Johannesburg, when Robben was thwarted by Casillas’ toe.
In the years post-Brazil, the rust took over. Robben remained the Oranje leader. But his body didn’t agree and in 2015 and 2016 he only played 166 minutes in Oranje. The exact same period in which we failed to qualify for France 2016. Van der Vaart got sidelined by Betis Sevilla and later at Mitdtjylland. Van Persie and Sneijder had the support of Danny Blind and Advocaat after Blind betted one more time, heavily, on the two mavericks. To no avail. Sneijder got subbed for Vilhena and Van Persie ended up with a bad knee injury. Not much after, the WC Russia disintegrated for us and with that, a proper send-off for our Top World Class players. Only Robben was there, when we clutched at straws vs Belarus and Sweden. Robben had an assist on Propper against Belarus but fired a free kick into row Z later on. He had a wry smile on his face… Against Sweden, Robben was man of the match. With two goals, a lucky pen and a smashing strike from outside of the 16. His swan song.
The demasque of Oranje is a fact now. Sneijder: “At Galatasaray, some players asked who were in the Dutch national team. I named them and all I could see were question marks in their faces…”
Sneijder wasn’t present for the last qualification games. Robben was the only one left. When asked about it: “I’m not going to lie. I find it tough to be here without him. I think he could have had value for us, he’s very important. But, it’s the coach who decides, not me. But yes, it’s a wake-up call for me.”
What rests us, are the memories. Two years ago, this sentimental journey got it’s prologue. Three of the Big Four are in the bar of the Amsterdam Hilton. The Dutch team stayed the night there. Clarence Seedorf, ex-international, came by to say hi. Sneijder, Van Persie and Robben sat down with Seedorf and shared memories of the times that Oranje was a shoe in for the semi finals at big tournaments. Life was good, jokes all around, sipping drinks in front of the fire place. Sneijder grabbed his phone and said: “Let me call Raffie, ask him to come down. We’d be complete again.” They laughed and toasted. Proud and melancholic.