Phillip Cocu passed the ball into him. A quick turn and a shot on target: goal! He jumps laughing into the arms of Pierre van Hooijdonk, at the side of the pitch. On the bench, coach Dick Advocaat. Oranje team manager, but without hair from front to back and Willem van Hanegem next to him as his assistant.
Ajax’ total management team was on the pitch. Marc Overmars on the left wing, Edwin van der Sar on goal. Sneijder was just a kid, gel in his hair and a somewhat oversized Orange jersey.
He walked and laughed like a teenager, that day. A school boy, but he played the match of his live. November 2003, Holland-Scotland: 6-0.
This was not his debut, but it certainly was his breakthrough. Just watch in the first 30 seconds of the game. Sneijder demands the ball, creates space from his own box, sprints across the length of the pitch, gives an opponent a knock at the half way line and walks away, chin up and chest out.
The Agassi-style walk, a bit pedantic, with the high raised elbows. The look saying “no one can touch me” and his fabolous kicking technique.
When Sneijder walked onto the pitch of De Kuip – one of his favorite venues – for his 131st international game, he doesn’t have that mercurial dynamic anymore. It was 14 years ago. His muscles are less agile, he’s got more tattoos, he bridges the distances with a bit more effort, but he is still Wesley Sneijder. Pure player. Bravado. The Man. Proud like no other.
He gave Oranje venom, will, class and bravado. But also a smile and a cheer. The many interviews, in the dark underbelly of a stadium, sweat dripping of his face. Or at the sideline of a windy practice pitch on Katwijk. Sometimes long and philosophical conversation, other times short soundbites. In hotels across the globe, at the training camps of Inter or Real Madrid, or at airports or amongst 1000s of insane Turkish fans.
Sneijder Superstar but always himself. Good mooded, positive, opportunistic even. For some an annoying alpha male but usually a happy-go-lucky larekin. Always good for a story, an anecdote or a fierce debate.
The World Cup 2010 in South Africa was the pinnacle of what would be his most successful year on the field. But also off the pitch. In South Africa, in Johannesburg, he would share stories about his faith, about love, about the talismans he brings on his travels, about his son, God, about him mother and life as a public persona.
Sneijder is streetwise. He may not have been educated too well, but he’s incredibly intelligent, and his emotional intelligence is a gift. He never lost his Utrecht dialect, but turned an ego-centric punk into a mature man, with an eye for the less fortunate. He is always happy to help old friends, will always give the young Oranje fans the time of day and is always available to the press.
In March, the last international game under Danny Blind, Sneijder had a speaking engagement before a conference hall with parents of young cancer patients. Sneijder knows how to: warm, upbeat, spontanious and will a good feel for timing and atmosphere. Whether he’s speaking with Princes Maxima, or the sick kid in the wheelchair, he is always at ease.
But it didn’t all go smoothly. Sometimes, Sneijder behind his mask of manliness could be unhappy and vulnerable. During his time at Real Madrid, he divorced his first wife and drowned himself in the Spanish nightlife, with a mediocre spell at the club. Self critical as he can be, later on he said “I was completely shit” about that period.
His love for life was a stumbling block a couple of more time. He didn’t always live like a pro. It seemed he almost missed the World Cup 2014 when Louis van Gaal attacked him agressively and forced the proud Sneijder to shape up or ship out. Sneijder took the bait. He was insulted. Humiliated. Angry as hell at Van Gaal. And he trained himself insane with kickboxer and personal coach Gokhan Saki. He was ignored for a while by Van Gaal but he kept at it. At the WC in Brazil, Sneijder was to play in service of the artists Van Persie and Robben and accepted the role. He had his value for Oranje with a killer game versus Spain and the equaliser against Mexico.
Glory embraced him in 2010, the year he won the Champions League with Inter and headed Oranje past Brazil at the WC. Or that pass through the eye of the needle on Arjen Robben, on his way to meet the toe of Casillas. One inch away from world gold.
It would not get any better than that. And this is another point of criticism: he seemed to settle to easily for Galatasaray. It might have been a couple of years too early. He became a demi god in Instanbul but as a club player, he said goodbye to the European top.
“He still is the best player of Galatasaray, hell, maybe of Turkey!” said Dick Advocaat this week. Sneijder took that quote and taunted the media: “You guys don’t follow the Turkish competition, but maybe you also want to make a judgement about me?”
He now has the record which he has been chasing fanatically. On his birthday even. 131 caps. And Sneijder even hinted at staying on after the WC2018. “Why not? I really value it, playing for Oranje. Every time again. Wesley Sneijder, figure head of Oranje in good and bad times. An Oranje legend in his active playing days. Worth a standing ovation.
April 30, 2003: Oranje – Portugal 1-1
There is a first for everything and this was the first for our record international. The young Ajax upstart came on in the second half to replace Phillip Cocu in a friendly vs Portugal. Dick Advocaat was his coach here as well and Arjen Robben made his debut as well.
October 11, 2003: Holland – Moldavia 5-0
The second international for Sneijder was a good one. Advocaat allowed him a starting birth and he got his first goal in the 51st minute, on a Kluivert assist. Signs of things to come.
November 19, 2003: Holland – Scotland 6-0
After being absent at the 2002WC, Oranje couldn’t afford to miss another big tournament. The qualification was not a smooth ride and we needed a play offs game vs Scotland to get to the Euros. We lost the away game 1-0. Oranje needed to set things right in the Amsterdam Arena. The 19 year old Sneijder took the reigns and led Oranje to a big win. Wesley scored the 1-0 after 14 minutes and allowed Ooijer and Van Nistelrooy goals via his free kick delivery. Van Nistelrooy also scored the 4-0 after which Sneijder delivered a corner-kick onto the head of Frank de Boer: 5-0.
June 9 2008: Holland – Italy 3-0
After another difficult qualification campaign, Oranje found itself in another Group of Death, with Italy, France and a strong Romania. The openingsgame vs Italy was on Sneijder’s 24th birthday. The world champions were played off the pitch 3-0, with a goal and assist by Sneijder.
June 13, 2008: Holland – France 4-1
A couple of days later, the World Cup runner up was the opponenent: France. Sneijder again dipped in with an assist and a sensational goal in injury time. A wonderful no-look distance striker pregnant with spin. His goal was choses as The Goal of the Tournament.
July 2, 2010: Holland – Brazil 2-1
A weak Oranje had to play cat and mouse with Brazil. With Oranje as the mouse. Robinho scored already after 10 minutes and Brazil was actually playing with Oranje. If Stekelenburg wouldn’t have stopped a marvelous Kaka effort, the game would have slipped away. But Bert van Marwijk was able to bring a totally different Oranje onto the pitch, with Rafael van de Vaart as holding midfielder. In the 53rd minute, a free kick by Sneijder remained untouched and found his way past Julio Cesar. Fifteen minutes later, the little playmaker scored a surprising header in amongst the Brazilian defense. 1 meter and 70 centimeters and the header was the winner. Oranje in the semis!
July 9, 2010: Holland – Spain 0-1
Uruguay was the next scalp in the semis, with another Sneijder goal (and Gio’s Goal of the Tournament). The finals vs Spain was supposed to be to ultimate. Just before the break, Sneijder released Robben with a pinpoint pass but Casillas toe came in between Sneijder and the World Cup. There were a number of goal opportunities but no goals. Nigel de Jong scored the biggest upset by kicking Alonso in two (almost). Oranje was headed towards penalties after Heijtinga was sent off and Van der Vaart took his place as man market. In the 116th minute, Iniesta decapitated Holland. For the third time, a runners up silver medal for Oranje.
September 2, 2011: Holland – San Marino 11-0
One could say any international game vs San Marino should be a footnote and nothing more. The question is not: who wins, but with how many goals will we win. But it was a benchmark game. The first time Oranje got double digits. Sneijder scoring two goals and an assist.
July 13, 2014: Holland – Spain 5-1
The openings game for Oranje at the WC2014 was Sneijder’s 100st cap for Oranje. The Spanish Seleccion had won three major tournaments in a row and was favorite versus a – alleged -weak Oranje. Xabi Alonso scored the first goal from the spot kick. Just before half time, Van Persie scored the equaliser on a deep pass by Daley Blind. After the break, Holland scored 4 more, with two assists for Sneijder. Oranje’s revenge. Spain would go home after the group stage.
29 juni 2014: Nederland-Mexico 2-1
Oranje qualified with ease for this tournament and actually sailed through the group stage after finishing of the reigning world champs. In the first knock out game vs Mexico, it almost went wrong. Dos Santos scored the first goal in the first half and it took till the 88th minute before Oranje could salvage the game. A loose ball fell on the gifted foot of Sneijder who finished the ball emphatically. Not much later, Robben was awarded a penalty and Huntelaar hammered the ball home. Mexico went home, Oranje moved into the quarter finals.