Van Gaal: “Look Sneijdertje! Those tattoos! Totally wrong. That is not how you do it?! Bring me a pen! I will draw you a good tattoo…”
Wesley Sneijder looked back at the abysmal EC while his team mates almost secured the ticket for the next big tournament. Wes was looking at the Romania game on his laptop in LA – where he is being treated for his injury – and feels the need to explain – as a true skipper – what happened last summer.
He was the guiding light in a team that had lost it. Dependable Mr Everton John Heitinga seemed to be on a summer holiday, Huntelaar left Dr Jekyl at home but came as Mr Hyde while Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel seemed to be playing futsol. And Van Persie was practicing without goals.
“There were so many excuses brought forward….already after the Denmark game… But there are no excuses. We played a World Cup finals against the best team of the world with these lads… And now we can’t score against Denmark? With all the quality we have?”
Sneijder doesn’t believe the EC squad was “over the hill”. Are you mad? Of course not! You can see how dominant and committed players like Heitinga, Van Bommel and Van Persie were for their clubs, right? How can you say they’re over the hill? I’m only 28 years old. Rafa only 29…”
So what went wrong? “A lot… Somehow, the automatisms we developed in 2010 were gone. It hadn’t even to do with form. Jeez, players like Huntelaar, Van Persie, Heitinga, Vlaar, Van der Vaart, Willems….almost everyone came out of a strong season. Every team manager would have had saliva if they could play one of these lads… And at times, we did play well. Really well. But we could keep that going. Something happened…as if a fear-switch was flicked, and half the team tracked back while the forwards wanted to push up. And what happens to your midfield then? They drown…”
Sneijder is on a roll… “And it’s the things you do or don’t do without the ball that matter. Your positioning. Fans always look at where the ball is. They only see part of the picture. But when Van Bommel builds up, what do the full backs do? What do the center backs do? When we lose possession, who do they respond? What do the wingers do? All these things… In 2010, we immediately went for the ball when we lost possession. Even 35 year old Van Bronckhorst or Van Bommel. We pushed forward and we were at their throats. Now, we tracked back…or some of us did. So when Denmark is offered space, sure they can play…”
Against Germany, 2-1 down, the whole world saw Sneijder walk over to the side line yelling at Van Marwijk: “Let’s play 1 on 1…”
“Yes, well… I thought we had them! We started great. Allowed them to score to cheap goals. We got back into the game and I swear to God, in the last 20 minutes or so, they were spent. I thought we would equalise. I wanted Bert to support me and he did. But the team didn’t respond. But we made the same old mistakes. Well…at the end of the game, yeah….Germany outclassed us. But in the first 20 minutes, they didn’t touch the ball…”
The Dutch team got a lot of criticism in the tournament and a crying Sneijder had to be told there still was a chance if they beat Portugal. “Seriously…people criticised me for not knowing this. But I simply don’t “do” calculations when you lost. I want to win. That is all I think about. So I didn’t know this. Didn’t even want to know, I guess. So when we lost versus Germany, I thought it was all over. And when it wasn’t, I was sure we’d beat Portugal. I remember talking with the group and with the coaches in the run up to the game. Let’s be at their throats! Let’s make sure we hit first and keep them down for 90 minutes…”
Holland did score the first goal. A pent up Van der Vaart unleashed a brilliant shot but to no avail. When it was 1-0, Holland started to allow Portugal on the ball. And C Ronaldo pulled the trigger twice when Holland showed lack of confidence yet again. With a pleading, working, leading, screaming, Sneijder… On the left flank this time around, to allow Van Persie the “10” position.
“I had to drift more to the left side, but I’m ok with that. Whatever the team needs, seriously. Robin needed to play centrally, I can easily play on the left. I will always look for and find free space to operate in.”
How different this tournament ended for Sneijder, who can’t stand losing. His analysis. “In South Africa, everything clicked. Everything worked. Every little detail was there. The tactics, the atmosphere, the confidence, the fun factor, the fitness and it was all supported by the results. Everything is connected, but it starts with results. And a little luck. We had some luck in South Africa. We didn’t get any breaks in 2012…”
Holland seemed to be on a roll in the EC qualifications, however. With the Sweden game as peak, with Raf van der Vaart as holding mid… Since that game, Oranje’s performances deteriorated. Also for Sneijder in person. Inter went in free fall and Sneijder got injured. So badly that the nation worried about his fitness. The friendly against England didn’t help. A clearly unfit Sneijder asked for a substitution and could hardly walk to the byline.
“Man, I had a fever. I wasn’t well. But I wanted to play. I shouldn’t have played that game, but who doesn’t want to play Wembley? For a player like me, in Italy, there are only so many opportunities to play Wembley… And I wanted to. But running for 20 meters was a chore already. Not smart. But I was top fit when the EC started.”
And Sneijder was the only player who impressed a former top player like Diego Maradona. The rest of the team grossly disappointed. How…why?
“Pffff…we all came together differently. In 2010, we all were eager to play. Robin had a tough year with injuries. I had won everything with Inter. Hunter wanted to prove himself. Rafa same. We were all keen to play and to make ourselves inferior to the team interest. And there were no discussions about how to play. This time around, there was that debate… Two big goal scorers… Rafa had a great season with Spurs, he wanted a starting birth… This all made the start was different. The dynamics had changed. This makes its mark. One player was not himself as he came back from a long injury. Another player felt insecure as another player was hunting for his spot. Another player had domestic issues. These things all work through. The dynamics were off. Sometimes we do have these issues in a group, and normally we deal with it. We are a strong and tight group. We are one team. Still. But the issues were too big for us to deal with in that short timeframe. And the coach suffered through that too. He got so much criticism so early on already… Uncalled for… But…that is how it is.”
Sneijder and Van Marwijk had a close bond. “Well… sure. He was our manager. He led us to the finals. I supported him 1000%. He was the right man for the right time. And I want to help and support. I want to be important. So I fed him with ideas. And gave him my insights. Like Mark did, and Robin and others… And he treated us as adults. Gave us confidence. And he allowed you to come up with alternative ideas. Bert is a modern coach, just like Louis van Gaal.”
Rafael van der Vaart is less subtle. He felt Van Marwijk was too rigid. “When you are a starter, it’s cool of course… But when you are dropped, it’s tough. You sometimes don’t know what to do to get into the team.”
Sneijder: “Yes that is true. I get that. We had unrest with Kuyt, Hunter and Van der Vaart having trouble accepting that role, but you have to show it on the field. Simple. But I had to tell Klaas Jan and Rafa to cool it a bit, but Kuyt was really super professional. This guy played almost everything the last years. And was important for us. And suddenly, he is on the bench. That is really tough. I couldn’t say I would be so professional about it, hey….?”
Wesley being treated for his injury
Wesley Sneijder was a bit of a rebel when young(er) and playing for Ajax… “Een mannetje”, was the Amsterdam term for someone like him… But he’s grown wiser and more responsible. “I feel mature now. I think I’m starting to become more of a leader. I always had a big mouth and used it. But now I am more responsible in how I use it…. I think I’m now deserving of the band… I’d love to be the skipper for the coming period. I think I can carry it.”
At the start of the Euros, Sneijder felt that this was the last chance for this generation for a big trophy. Now, he disagrees. “Well, you say those things to motivate yourself. But clearly, most of us are still in top shape. Only Mark retired… And maybe some others will have more difficulty playing as starters…. But I think the core of this EC squad could still be important for at least two years. Lets not look past the the World Cup. The Euro squad could have gone all the way, no….should have gone all the way!! But we didn’t. And we all know Van Gaal won’t change the whole team in two years. With Van Persie, Van der Vaart, Robben, Heitinga, De Jong, myself, Stekelenburg….there still will be a core of players under 30 in 2014. We will need to demonstrate that we can still do the job. If we can’t, Van Gaal has the younger options as well.”
On the new generation. “I am totally impressed with some of these lads. I remember when I started with Oranje, I had to really work my ass off to keep up at practice. These lads, Maher, Clasie, Martins Indi… Amazing how easily they adapt. Has everything to do with the high level of the academies of Ajax, AZ, Feyenoord, Twente, PSV and even Vitesse and Sparta. Really impressive and really cool to have these lads in the squad.”
Asked about the difference between Van Marwijk and Van Gaal, Sneijder smiles. “Well…seriously…Van Gaal is a breed apart isn’t he? Van Marwijk is a very professional modern coach. Would work everywhere well… To me, he is like Benitez, like Ancelotti, , Koeman… He is a modern coach. Strong personality. Good people manager. Van Gaal is unique. So driven, so focused on details. Coaches like Hiddink and Van Marwijk expect players to take responsibility. Bert didn’t care what you ate or how much you slept… Van Gaal is totally involved with everything. I like that in him. Plus, he is a tactical wizard. So interesting to work with him. He does remind me a lot of Cruyff (funnily enough) and Mourinho. I worked with him at Ajax and knew he would be great. In a way, a nice progression after Bert van Marwijk, who taught us to that winning is important, taught us to operate as a unit. Play with grit. He instilled some “German” football in us. Now, with Van Gaal, we might add some icing on the cake.”
The little big man enjoys working with youngsters too, realising he’s turning into a veteran almost. “Well, I’m close to 100 caps. That is quite something eh? And yes, I enjoy working with younger players. It’s a challenge and a responsibility. But I think we’re in good shape with all the talent.”
How did he experience the first games under Van Gaal? “Clearly, we have a newly found resilience, coupled with changes in tactics. And the new players have added something extra. Both in terms of football options as in pressure on the older players. It’s good. It seems that most of us are doing well. Robin settled in nicely with ManU, Rafa is happy in Hamburg, Kuyt is happy in Turkey, he’s scoring goals and is important there. Players need that. And I don’t worry about the youngsters. They will all get a great carreer if they keep on developing like this. And 12 out of 4 is great! We are getting used to those qualifications now, aren’t we? But it’s good. I will have to fight my way back into the team, haha…”
Sneijder suffers an injury and is ruled out for weeks. He was being treated in LA last week and expects a quicker recovery as a result. Here is a pic of Wes watching Romania – Holland on his laptop.