Three unusual sounds rang across the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador during the dregs of extra-time in the Holland-Costa Rica quarterfinal. First was the clatter of Wesley Sneijder’s shot against the crossbar.
The Holland number 10 hardly ever misses. But last Saturday, the upright had held him back on three separate occasions. Then came a loud sigh, pushed out from the depths of Sneijder’s lungs.
And finally, a collective gasp from the Dutch supporters seated behind that stubborn goalpost, as Sneijder buried his face in the embracing arms of current captain and once mortal enemy, Robin van Persie.
Four years in football is a long time. But in Sneijder’s case, it will seem more like an eternity.
Four years back in South Africa, there stood a greater chance of that inanimate goalpost expanding an inch or two to swallow yet another Sneijder goal than van Persie ever lending him his shoulder to cry on.
But back then, the ‘always-smiling-always-arrogant Smurf’ (that’s what van Persie called a short and smug Sneijder in public) hardly ever cried. And why would he?
Four years ago to the day, his five World Cup goals had put Holland in the final and him on the cusp of becoming the only player in history to win every single major in the same year (he had already led Inter Milan to the treble — Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia).
And to add to all that brilliance, Sneijder was dating actress Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen, then five-time winner of the title ‘sexiest Dutchwoman alive’
Yes, there was the small and public matter of settling a dispute with van Persie on just who should take Holland’s freekicks in the quadrennial.
But that was soon sorted without intervention after a Sneijder goal was witnessed in the group stages, then in the pre-quarterfinals, then the quarterfinals and again in the semi-finals.
Life was good and Sneijder, then having just turned 26, even better.A day before Holland were to meet Spain in the Johannesburg final, Sneijder is said to have summoned a few journalists to his room and shared a dream he had had.
“It was about the final. Who won? Who do you think? It was a remarkably good game. Afterwards I was satisfied. Again, I got man of the match.”
It didn’t stop there. Sneijder went on to fish out his phone and show the Dutch journos a text he received from Spain’s Sergio Ramos, his former team-mate at Real Madrid where the Dutch star was once worth Euro 27 million.
“See, it reads, ‘Will you take it easy, Wes? You’ve already got three prizes’. That says enough, doesn’t it?” But the reporters wanted more and asked him about the Golden Boot he was on the verge of winning.
“Who cares about the Golden Boot? I want the Golden Cup,” Sneijder is quoted as barking back.
That’s a 26-year old Sneijder for you, who once asked Holland goalkeeper Piet Velthuizen how much he earns at a crowded breakfast table. When he got the answer (Euro 400,000), Sneijder giggled and said: “Don’t you think it’s funny that I make 20 times as much as you?”
He wasn’t much liked of course, not even by his own family after he stopped Real Madrid from negotiating a transfer to bring his younger brother Rodney on board.
Today, Rodney is slumming it out in the Dutch second division with an unknown club called Almere City FC. But Sneijder didn’t care. He was rich. He was brilliant. And he was about to take Holland where even the great Johan Cruyff hadn’t, all the way to the trophy.
Only, he didn’t. And a one-night dream turned into a four-year nightmare.
“That’s really the low point of my career — walking past the Cup and not holding it,” a far more sober Sneijder admitted, unable to wipe away his horrors from four years ago. “That’s my rockbottom, always will be.”
At this four-year long rockbottom, the man ‘greater than Leo Messi’ (as Jose Mourinho, Sneijder’s father-figure at Inter, constantly said) was banished to Galatasaray, was stripped off his Holland captaincy and nearly didn’t make the country’s 23-member squad cut for this campaign — leave alone featuring against Messi’s Argentina in the semi-final on Wednesday.
About six months ago, Holland coach Louis van Gaal told a local newspaper that he was far from pleased with Sneijder’s lack of fitness and uninspiring play in the Turkish league.
That stray comment pierced the walled city of Istanbul and Sneijder’s eardrums. He wasn’t happy of course, but the words held a mirror to his ageing face.
His reflection perhaps didn’t make him happy either, for he hired Gokhan Saki — the Dutch-Turkish kickboxer — as his personal trainer and chiselled his 30-year old body into a 20-year old mould.
“When he arrived at our training camp, he was in great physical shape,” said van Gaal. “I was surprised.” That wasn’t the only surprising factor for the coach and his team.
The new-look Sneijder had reformed his attitude as well, claiming he was ready to play any role in the side. So van Gaal gave him the one available post left in this team — that of a backroom leader.
Today, Arjen Robben makes play, van Persie calls the shots and Sneijder, sitting a lot deeper in the midfield than he did in the past, holds a young squad together. “He is one of our top leaders.
He always had the technique and today he has the attitude for it as well,” said the coach, lavishing praise. “Yes, and he can still score goals. That still doesn’t surprise me.”
Against Mexico in the Round of 16 game, Sneijder scored his only goal of the campaign so far — an 87th minute equaliser to keep Holland’s hopes in the World Cup alive.
“To make the difference with our team in the last 3 mins is fantastic,” he tweeted later. The moment Holland became ‘ours’ and not ‘his’, a country — including van Persie — accepted him with open arms.