Some players are just meant to be loved, whether that’s in the peak of their careers or further down the line when people realized they didn’t fully appreciate what they were watching. Of course people see these players and rate them highly, no one doubts their ability but very few quite fully see how good they are and how important they are to their team.
There are a few that, for whatever reason, are only fully appreciated when it’s too late. Some truly world-class players are left out of conversations for whatever reason, but this one that I’m about to talk about was simply the best player in the world, only in the wrong generation.
In 2010, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had just scored 80 goals between them for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and they were flying high at the top of the footballing hierarchy, but they weren’t even the best players in the world at that time. Despite the goals and the adulation, neither of them could lay a finger on the season that Wesley Sneijder had for Internazionale.
The Dutchman was the key player in an Inter side that dominated Italian football and clinched the treble of the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and, of course, the Champions League under Jose Mourinho. He was the catalyst of the attacking play for Inter, leading the likes of Samuel Eto’o, the deadly Diego Milito, Goran Pandev and Dejan Stankovic.
Mourinho’s side played almost exclusively on the counter-attack, whether that be in a 4-2-3-1 set up, 4-3-1-2 or even a 4-4-1-1 when they needed to sit a bit deeper. In any of the three systems, Sneijder was always the focal point of the side, being the man that took Inter to the next level in an attacking sense. His ability to pick out a pass – short or long – was key, especially when on the break, trying to play out to Eto’o or Pandev on the flanks, and his partnership with Milito worked so well.
The playmaker was the star of that team, but let’s take it back a few years and discover how he found himself as Jose Mourinho’s key man for the Nerazzurri.
Sneijder came through the ranks at Ajax and from a very young age he impressed both players and coaches alike. It was clear for all to see that this young kid had something special about him, coming up into the first team with fellow youth graduate Rafael van der Vaart and playing alongside the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and future Inter teammate Maxwell.
As is the case with almost every talented Ajax youngster, eventually the big clubs of Europe will come calling and this materialised when Ajax sold Sneijder to Spanish giants Real Madrid for €27m, which at the time made him the second most expensive Dutch footballer of all time. Los Blancos put a lot of faith in the player, but his start to Madrid life couldn’t have been much better.
Four goals in his first three matches meant that Sneijder became an early season hero for Real Madrid, joining fellow Dutchmen Royston Drenthe and Arjen Robben as three of the four biggest deals Madrid did that summer.
But despite his good form and his willingness to stay, new boss Manuel Pellegrini moved him on due to the fact he simply wouldn’t get a game because Kaka, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo had just been bought. Sneijder admitted that he didn’t want to leave, but what happened next was without a doubt the best thing to ever happen to him.
Mourinho had been determined to bring him to the San Siro all throughout the summer of 2009, and when Jose wants a player this badly, you know he’s going to work wonders with him. Sneijder joined Inter for a fee of €15m, which by today’s standards is one of the steals of the century, but at the time it was a huge move.
The midfielder had a point to prove. He was let go by arguably the biggest club in world but was about to become the main man for Inter. This was his chance to prove his doubters wrong and to finally have a team built around him and his qualities.
Mourinho had spent the first season in Italy trying to put together the pieces of a team that could seriously challenge for the Champions League. Inter’s midfield was very solid and defensively quite sound, but it was missing a creative link, someone who could turn defence into attack with one pass or a drop of a shoulder.
Sneijder was that player – he had the ability to change the fortunes of this team. Inter’s flexibility was helped by an influx of new signings. Genoa duo Diego Milito, one of the coolest finishers in Europe, and Thiago Motta, who added depth in the midfield position. Alongside them Brazilian Lucio was brought in as the partner Walter Samuel had been craving from Bayern Munich for just €8m.
Halfway through the season Pandev joined from Lazio, but the biggest deal was bringing in Eto’o as part of the deal that saw Ibrahimovic join Barcelona. Combine all of this with Sneijder effectively being the conductor of Mourinho’s orchestra, and you had a side that had everything required to be successful.
In the first half of the 2009/10 Serie A campaign, Inter only lost twice and on both occasions Sneijder wasn’t in the squad. The first defeat came away at Sampdoria when Mourinho opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Esteban Cambiasso and Patrick Vieira in the holding midfield positions.
Sneijder’s absence was felt in the side and when he returned for the next match against Udinese, he curled a low effort into the bottom corner in the 92nd minute to keep Inter top of the table as they entered October.
The Dutchman’s influence on the side continued with two assists in the 5-0 away victory over Genoa, setting up both Vieira and Mario Balotelli, and against Catania at home, where his free kick from about 30 yards out proved to be the winner.
Following those two brilliant displays he was struck with an injury that caused him to miss six games across the back end of October, November and December. His injury meant that he could only play two games between the three months, two 1-1 draws against Roma and Atalanta, and aggravated his injury further on international duty for the Netherlands which once again caused him to miss out more games prior to the winter break.
Following the break, Inter and Sneijder continued in the vein of form they were in, going unbeaten in the first 11 games of 2010, albeit five of them were draws (three of which finished 0-0). However as they cruised in Serie A, Mourinho and his band of brothers turned their attentions to a bigger prize, a prize that had eluded Inter for 45 years: the Champions League.
Inter had been gifted with a rather easy group with the exception of reigning champions Barcelona, but when they finished second in Group F they were drawn against Mourinho’s former employers Chelsea in the last 16 in what promised to be an incredible tie.
The first leg at the San Siro saw the Nerazzurri come out with a 2-1 victory, with Milito and Esteban Cambiasso getting on the score sheet. While Sneijder didn’t register a goal or assist, he was still crucial to the team’s performance. His passing and set pieces created chance after chance, but it was the second leg where his influence was really felt.
The Dutchman’s wonderful through ball over Branislav Ivanovic set Eto’o on his way to slide the ball past Petr Cech and set up a quarter-final clash against CSKA Moscow. His performances in the Champions League led many to put him as one of the front-runners for the Ballon d’Or alongside Messi and Ronaldo.
Sneijder’s wonderful Serie A performances as the Nerazzurri dropped just 12 points out of a potential 33 in the final stretch of the season. Milito finished as the Serie A Player of the Year and second in the Capocannoniere standings with 22 goals (seven behind Antonio Di Natale) and this Inter side was flying high.
CSKA were dispatched of with two 1-0 wins that may not have been the prettiest of victories, but a vital away goal from Sneijder sent them into the semi-finals to face Barcelona, a rematch of the group stage clash.
Barca took the lead through Pedro Rodriguez, but that was as good as it got for them as Sneijder stepped up and led Inter to a 3-1 victory. He scored just 10 minutes later to level things up before completely running the game and even setting up the important third goal from Milito.
Performances like this were what made Sneijder special. Inter had their backs up against the wall for a large portion of the game, but he still had the ability and presence of mind to create and score. After this tie and especially the first leg, people started to truly believe that he had a chance of winning the Ballon d’Or, especially considering that he had just orchestrated the defeat of two of his rivals in Xavi and Messi.
As Inter wrapped up the Coppa Italia and Scudetto for their fifth consecutive title (according to the record books), they set their sights firmly on the Champions League.
A Milito double delivered Old Big Ears back to the blue and black half of Milan for the first time in almost half a century, but while the Argentina got the official UEFA Man of the Match, it was Sneijder who took home the fans’ Man of the Match, which says a lot about how how highly fans rated him.
This is where it gets poetic. Mourinho, who had been linked heavily with the Real Madrid job, had just won his second Champions League title with two different clubs, in the home of the club who had been courting him for months. It was a fitting send off and an emphatic introduction to life in Madrid, but it was a different kind of poetry for Sneijder.
This game symbolized how far he had come since leaving Real Madrid. He had been forced out of the club to make room for Kaka and sent off to Inter where he was allowed to become the world class player everyone knew he would be. He was the focal point of Jose’s masterpiece and showcased how good he was at the Santiago Bernabeu, in Real Madrid’s backyard.
Winning the Champions League in Madrid meant a lot to Sneijder, but it also put him in good stead to win the Ballon d’Or. We all know that what you win is just as important as how well you play, and there was nothing more Sneijder could have done to be in pole position.
Yet, despite guiding the Netherlands to the World Cup final, finishing as runners-up, he didn’t win the award. In fact, he didn’t even come second, or third. He came fourth. Even Xavi, who finished third in the voting, said that it was ridiculous that his rival wasn’t in the top three.
Sneijder’s performances at the World Cup were good enough to win him the gong alone, scoring five times, winning Man of the Match in four games and being named the second best player of the tournament.
What more could he have done? We all know how good he was for both Inter and for the Netherlands, but seeing him break the monopoly of Messi and Ronaldo would’ve been refreshing to see.
Sneijder will forever be remembered as the man who should’ve won the 2010 Ballon d’Or, but to those who didn’t have the pleasure of watching him live, in particular in the 2009/10 season, go onto YouTube and find old Inter clips during that season. He was magnificent, as was the whole team.
It was a crying shame that the Dutchman didn’t get the recognition that he deserved, but fans of football will never forget how good he was at that time. The 2009/10 season was his and he ruled Italy, Europe and the world in the space of 12 months. It was a world class campaign from a truly world class player.
Words by Tom Scholes: @_TomScholes