Smurf with boundless belief

Image of Simon Kuper

At breakfast with the Dutch national team, Wesley Sneijder called out to Piet Velthuizen, goalkeeper of a small Dutch club: “Hey, Piet, how much do you earn?” Velthuizen proudly replied: “€400,000.” “Don’t you think it’s funny,” asked Sneijder, Inter Milan’s playmaker, “that I make 20 times as much as you?”

After the exchange was publicly leaked, Sneijder protested that he and Velthuizen had been joking. That may be true – footballers’ humour is no laughing matter – and yet the conversation was classic Sneijder. The little man, whose Inter host Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday, has an unusually large dollop of confidence per square inch. Just when globalisation was supposed to have eroded national styles in football, here is the Dutch footballer of eternal stereotype. Dutch fans saw Sneijder coming when he was even smaller than he is now. Even in Ajax Amsterdam’s celebrated kids’ teams, he stood out for being perfectly two-footed. He lifted free-kicks onto the head of another boy, Nigel de Jong, now of Manchester City, using either foot. Aged 18 he debuted in Ajax’s first team. Three months later he was playing for Holland.

Nobody ever doubted Sneijder’s talent, least of all Sneijder. Aged 19, he was so outraged to start a match as a substitute that when he was sent on and scored, he turned and raised his middle finger at his coach. In the time before multimillion-euro salaries and daily media briefings, Dutch footballers had habitually been insubordinate. Everyone else had since turned corporate, but Sneijder remained himself.

Some initially questioned whether a slow 5’7” midfielder could go far. One Dutch team-mate unlovingly calls Sneijder “The Smurf”, while he is also known as “the keychain” and, nationwide, as “Sneijdertje”, meaning “Little Sneijder”. However, early in his career football’s fashions changed. As the fields filled with galloping supermen, only smurfs slight enough to twist could find the remaining inches of space. Little Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Franck Ribéry thrived. Small was beautiful.

When Real Madrid bought Sneijder, he accepted it as his due. Sneijder expects the world, and usually gets it. The actress Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen is voted sexiest Dutchwoman so reliably that one year she withdrew from contention to give others a chance. Sneijder texted Yolanthe. She became his girlfriend. Soon afterwards, on an aeroplane, he grabbed a microphone and proposed. Thankfully they have not yet accepted offers to star in a reality TV show, but the point is that Sneijder is confident.

Last summer Real bought a new side. Initially Sneijder survived, and was proud of his spot in the changing-room, beside Cristiano Ronaldo and one seat away from Kaká. Sneijder knew Real wouldn’t sell him. He advised his buddy Rafael van der Vaart to leave Real and go somewhere where he was wanted. Then, to Sneijder’s surprise, Real sold him but let Van der Vaart stay. “The people who now run Real Madrid are not fine people,” Sneijder lamented. Then he found true happiness again. Much as Sneijder had wooed Yolanthe, Inter’s coach José Mourinho sent Sneijder daily texts expressing his love. It worked. Sneijder joined Inter, and says of his confident little coach: “I am a bit like him. He could have been my father.” He loves the way Mourinho sits in the back of the plane among the players, and instructs Sneijder not to bother defending. Mourinho’s love is rewarded: Inter have lost four games this season, all when Sneijder wasn’t playing.

Holland’s coaches are less enamoured. Too often before, Dutch football’s traditional “conflict model” has torn apart the national team.

Already the Dutch have exiled Clarence Seedorf for fear that if his ego were added to everyone else’s, the changing room might spontaneously combust. Sneijder has courted banishment, too. But he’s good. This year, he hopes to win the Champions League and World Cup. In fact, he probably expects to.

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