There is a chequered recent history where Dutch players in Milan are concerned. Andy van der Meyde, who was with Internazionale from 2003 to 2005 before leaving for his spectacularly uncelebrated four years at Everton, is remembered more for a decision to buy his wife a zebra from a zoo in Varese than anything he achieved inside San Siro.
But the city's Dutch heritage is a rich one in the footballing sense. From Faas Wilkes, the electrifying Inter wing forward of the early 1950s so renowned for his ability that Gazetta dello Sport swore he could "dribble past everyone, even his own team-mates", to Milan's Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten – the professori Hollandi as Fabio Capello described them once he had succeeded Arrigo Sacchi to manage Milan – the city has been absorbed by the Dutch for generations. Carlo Ancelotti will have left his Chelsea players under no illusion that the latest to play for Inter, Wesley Sneijder, has not let the side or the nation down in Lombardy in the past seven months.
The Netherlands always knew Sneijder for what he was: a small but perfectly formed two-footed player. He was part of an Ajax youth set up in which Nigel de Jong, now of Manchester City, was the grateful recipient of the many free-kicks he lifted into the penalty box. Three months after his debut, aged 18, in the Ajax first team the diminutive 5ft 7in midfielder – uncharitably described as "Sneijder The Smurf" by one Dutch team-mate – was in the national side and in many ways he considered his arrival at Real Madrid five years later as something of an inevitability.
His stay was to be a fleeting one, because although Sneijder brought the requisite celebrity – he and his actress girlfriend Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen became the Posh and Becks of the Madrileno scene, which was appropriate when Sneijder took over Beckham's No 23 jersey – he did not survive Florentino Perez's neo-galactico revolution. Much to his own astonishment he found himself on a one-way flight out of Spain, destined for Jose Mourinho's Inter last summer.
Theirs has been an extraordinary, blossoming relationship already. "I am a bit like him. He could have been my father," Sneijder said of Mourinho earlier this season. "Only once when I was at Ajax did my boss [Henk Ten Cate] make me feel really important. Mourinho allows me to play exactly in the position where I can do what I do best."
But the mutual appreciation is not simply based on the fact that Inter's only four defeats this season have come when the 25-year-old was not playing. Operating behind the strikers as a genuine No 10, Sneijder has provided the creative force between midfield and attack which was so often missing in the more lumpen Inter sides of last season, when so much was built around Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Even when Sneijder was sent off in the Milan derby which Inter won 2-0 last month – he later apologised for the ironic clap which saw him depart the field – he was the heartbeat of the side. "They have an extraordinary player now," Milan's Clarence Seedorf – still the only player to win the Champions League with three clubs and also the first Dutchman to play for both Milan teams – observed of his compatriot that day. "Sneijder makes a real difference and is adding great quality to their team." The little touchline dance Mourinho performed when Sneijder scored the winning goal in San Siro against Udinese recently was another reminder to Real of what the Spaniards have lost in a player who will shoot from any distance.
Chelsea will remember with a shudder, of course, the trouble a diminutive midfielder caused them in the knock-out stage of last season's tournament. The player in question went by the name of Lionel Messi. Tonight in San Siro, John Obi Mikel may be the individual tasked with stemming the creative powers of Sneijder and cutting off the supply line to Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito.
The question for Inter is whether they can adequately support Sneijder, whose more muted display against Barcelona in the goalless group stage match in Milan, proves he cannot always carry the torch alone when the competition is at its most challenging. Mourinho has defensive minded midfielders in Sulley Muntari and Esteban Cambiasso, and strikers aplenty (Eto'o, Milito and Mario Balotelli) but the problem area can tend to be the turf in between. Where Messi has Xabi Iniesta, Sneijder has no one at times.
Sneijder will be of a mind that he can handle things perfectly well alone, though. In a discussion of his decision to invest so heavily in Dutch talent, the legendary Sacchi once declared that "football is like a painting. It's born in the head, not in the feet or hands." The latest carrier of the Dutch torch knows he is testament to that.
Wonderful Wesley: Sneijder's statistics
Wesley Benjamin Sneijder
Born 9 June, 1984, Utrecht
2002–07 Ajax, 174/55
2007-09 Real Madrid, 64/11
2009- Internazionale, 22/6
56 caps for Netherlands, 12 goals
A free-kick specalist, Sneijder comes from a footballing family. His dad and brother played, while his younger brother features for the Ajax academy.Reuse content