Sneijder steps up for Netherlands
Sometimes, the words "vindication" and "redemption" are mentioned a little too quickly in football. In the case of Wesley Sneijder, however, there seems to be no way around it, especially after the game-changing equaliser he scored during the Netherlands' round of 16 thriller against Mexico.
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Two years ago, when manager Louis van Gaal had just taken charge of the Dutch national team, it didn't look like Sneijder would have much of a role to play in the team the new boss envisioned. "Sneijder must first focus on becoming fit," Van Gaal told a group of Dutch journalists in August 2013. "Then he must focus on getting in form."
Nigel de Jong and Kevin Strootman quickly claimed their places in Van Gaal's midfield. But the third spot in the manager's 4-3-3, usually reserved for a playmaker, rarely stayed occupied by the same player. Sneijder was given some playing time, but so were Rafael van der Vaart and youngsters like Jordy Clasie and Georginio Wijnaldum. It seemed like Van Gaal simply didn't need an old-school playmaker like Sneijder.
The injury that ruled Strootman out of the World Cup in March seemed to strike an extra nail into Sneijder's coffin. Without a box-to-box player like Strootman covering his back, Van Gaal seemed even less enthusiastic about playing a true, attack-minded No. 10 like Sneijder.
In the meantime, though, Sneijder had taken Van Gaal's message about fitness seriously. The Galatasaray midfielder, on a mission to prove he was still able to perform at the highest level, was starting to look fitter and sharper than ever. He had been essential to the Netherlands' successful World Cup 2010 campaign. Now he wanted to play on football's most grandiose stage once more.
How happy Sneijder must have felt, then, when Van Gaal announced his decision to switch from his beloved 4-3-3 formation to an unusual 5-3-2. With three centre-backs and two holding midfielders behind the attacking midfielder, this new formation seemed like it was designed for Sneijder, who performs best when he's told he doesn't have to worry much about tracking back or, for that matter, his fitness level.
It might have been Van Gaal's master plan: motivate Sneijder to reach superman levels of fitness by questioning him in public and then think of a way to accommodate him shortly before the World Cup. In any case, not many people expected Sneijder would ever be part of Van Gaal's "Golden Triangle" (Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie).
There Sneijder was, though, against Spain and later against Australia and Chile. But just as his luck would have it, he wasn't involved in the Oranje's dazzling attacks much. The crosses coming from the end line, as well as the long balls thumped to Robben and Van Persie on the counter, flew right over Sneijder's head.
But then he appeared on the far end of a clever little header by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in the 88th minute against Mexico. From the edge of the area, Sneijder blasted the ball past seemingly invincible Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa to bring the Netherlands back from certain elimination. The goal itself, a merciless strike, was vintage Sneijder.
To Sneijder, it perhaps felt like the stuff you could write a film script about. While Strootman's injury played a part, it was Sneijder's splendid return to fitness that convinced Van Gaal to put him back in the team. Had Sneijder not managed to change his boss' mind, his country would have probably been out of the World Cup.
Sneijder is not one to brag, though. Perhaps because of Van Gaal's harsh coaching techniques, he knows his place. But on Sunday, if just in bed in his hotel room, maybe he will feel like he's in Hollywood.