First Sneijder conquered Europe. Next, the world?

The key to Inter's Champions League win, Holland's playmaker is proving the star on the biggest stage of all, writes Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

Christian Karembeu did it in 1998. Roberto Carlos repeated the feat in 2002. This year it could well be Wesley Sneijder, on course to be part of a Champions League and World Cup-winning team in the space of little more than a month.

Sneijder, 26, had a brilliant end to Internazionale's Champions League campaign and, unlike so many of those big beasts of European football – Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Franck Ribéry – carried his form straight into the World Cup. He was already a star of this Dutch team but with four goals so far he has even eclipsed its biggest name, Arjen Robben, and has had a far better time of it than Robin van Persie.

Before the World Cup finals, Ruud Gullit tipped Sneijder to be the most important player at the World Cup. "He has a brain and will be the star of the tournament," Gullit said. "Florentino Perez [the Real Madrid president] made a mistake selling him to Inter." At the time no one paid much attention but then Gullit does know a match-winning midfielder when he sees one.

In Madrid, where he moved in 2007 for £25m, Sneijder was regarded as lacking some self-discipline when it came to the temptations of the city's nightlife. Under Jose Mourinho last season all that changed and he has become the player who, against Uruguay in the semi-final tonight, will be crucial to Holland's hopes. Last summer, Mourinho had initially wanted to sign Deco from Chelsea but Carlo Ancelotti would not sanction the move so he spent £15m on Sneijder instead.

As with his two goals in the quarter-final against Brazil, Sneijder had a knack of scoring very important goals for Inter last season. He is the son of an engineer from Utrecht; a small man with a short temper. That chippiness has informed his game ever since he was at Ajax's academy as a teenager.

In Holland the story goes that before the game against Italy at Euro 2008, Sneijder sought out Marco Materazzi, now his team-mate at Inter, to tell him, in fairly unflattering terms, what he thought of the Italian as a player. It was regarded as Sneijder laying down a marker to the then-world champions. Holland duly won 3-0 and Sneijder scored the second goal.

His most serious contretemps has been with Van Persie with whom he has never had an easy relationship. The two clashed most notably during the Euro 2008 quarter-finals defeat by Russia when Sneijder hit a free-kick that Van Persie had expected to take himself. An argument ensued in the dressing room after the game that was widely reported in Dutch newspapers.

At first the coach, Bert van Marwijk, who took over after Euro 2008, refused to take the rift between the two players seriously but by October he was sufficiently concerned by the sniping between the two of them in the press that he called them both together for a meeting. So far at this World Cup, the peace has held between two of them and it has helped that the Dutch team, based in Sandton in Johannesburg, have not had a base as isolated and claustrophobic as the one England used.

In Italy last season, Sneijder was decisive in almost all the defining moments of the season. He scored the injury-time winner against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League in November. He scored the winner against Udinese in October. In the remarkable 4-3 win over Siena in January, when Inter came from behind to win in the last two minutes, Sneijder scored two including the equaliser to bring the score back to 3-3.

Needless to say, Mourinho is a big fan of the player who runs the midfield for him. Sneijder is a creator too – he made Diego Milito's first goal in the Champions League final in Madrid – and the supporters regard him as a traditional No 10, a playmaker. He played more on the left at Euro 2008 for the Netherlands but now plays in the centre of the three attacking players behind Van Persie in a 4-2-3-1 formation – akin to Steven Gerrard's role at Liverpool when they played that system.

He came to prominence as an international in November 2003 against Scotland in the qualifying play-off for Euro 2004. Having lost the first leg at Hampden Park 1-0, Scotland went to Amsterdam with great hopes. Dick Advocaat had been resistant to picking Sneijder, who had made his senior international debut earlier in the year at the age of 18, but he was eventually persuaded.

The Scots were destroyed 6-0 by the Dutch for whom Sneijder, by then 19, scored the first goal and played a key role in a masterclass. He played a couple of times in the tournament itself in which Holland were beaten in the semi-finals by Portugal.

Sneijder's relationship with his girlfriend, the Dutch actress Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen, is a big story in his country where she fulfils the role of leading WAG. He threatened a TV presenter who made fun of her and has admitted that he has converted to Catholicism since moving to Italy in order that he could marry her. "I'm pretty serious and committed about it and I have to say, life's much easier for me now," Sneijder said in a recent interview.

He was sold by Madrid last summer because he, along with Robben, was one of the few players that Perez could use to raise some money to help finance his huge investment in the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema. There is now an acceptance that Madrid have made a mistake in letting him go. In the last 12 months he has become exactly the kind of player they usually covet.

Key confrontations


The big decision for Oscar Tabarez tonight is: who can replace suspended left-back Jorge Fucile? Whoever does will have to mark Robben, the Netherlands' matchwinner. Martin Cacares, who is yet to play in the tournament, looks favourite. Caceres has to prevent the right-winger coming inside to shoot with his left,without committing too many fouls. If he fails Uruguay will lose.


If Uruguay do go behind, they will have to switch to an attacking mode and Periera will be given licence to join the attack. Used to playing as a wing-back he gallops energetically forward, despite lacking pace. The tireless Kuyt, playing on the left to accommodate Robben, is just the man to track him.

Great Dutch teams: great world cup failures

1974 Dazzled to reach the final

Under coach Rinus Michels, this Dutch side had perfected the fluid 4-3-3 system known as "Total Football". Captained by Johan Cruyff, and featuring Johan Neeskens they swept past Argentina and Brazil with dazzling displays en route to the final, where they lost 2-1 to hosts West Germany despite scoring a penalty before their opponents had touched the ball. It was in this World Cup that the team gained the unwanted accolade of being the greatest side never to win the tournament.

1978 Losing finalists again

The Dutch again reached the final, but were beaten 3-1 by host nation Argentina after extra-time goals from Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni forced another sad ending to the Oranjes' tournament. Hero of the 1974 World Cup, Cruyff had retired from international football in 1977, but the team still boasted the likes of Neeskens, Johnny Rep and Arie Haan from the side of 1974. And like in 1974, the Dutch had looked impressive to top their group, thrashing Austria 5-1, and defeating Italy 2-1 to progress to the final.

1990 Second round underachievers

The next generation of brilliant Dutchmen, including the talented Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, went to Italy in 1990 as European Champions after winning the 1988 event in West Germany, but didn't win a single game in Italy, drawing their three group stage matches including being held 0-0 by England and 1-1 by the Republic of Ireland. Holland lost 2-1 to arch-rivals West Germany in the second round – the game in which a frustrated Frank Rijkaard was dismissed for spitting at the German forward Rudi Völler, who was also sent off in the altercation. Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme scored the goals which knocked the pre-tournament favourites out.

Ollie Wright