Hard work paying off for Sneijder in new Dutch role
08 July 2014, 10:05
Sao Paulo - Hard work is paying off for Wesley Sneijder, who has learned to accept a new role in the Dutch team at his third World Cup.
He is still a player for the defining pass which made him one of the world's sought-after midfielders and a stand-out for the Netherlands at the last World Cup in 2010 in South Africa.
But he has now accepted more defensive duties in the Louis van Gaal system without - as he has shown in Brazil - not losing his appetite for scoring.
His equalizing goal against Mexico in the 2-1 last-16 victory and two efforts against the woodwork against Costa Rica in the quarter-final on Saturday were testimony to that.
The 30-year-old is one of the important senior players in the Dutch side which will be in a second successive World Cup final if they can overcome Argentina in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.
Although Sneijder still likes to get forward, he sees attacking team-mates Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben from a greater distance these days.
"It took time to get accustomed to the new role I had but now I am very happy. I do everything the coach wants me to," he said.
Sneijder's relationship with Van Gaal was not initially the best. The coach was not happy with the attitude and fitness of the Dutch stalwart who made his debut for the Oranje as an 18-year-old.
After moving to Turkish side Galatasaray, Sneijder's best days were seemingly over after highly successful spells at Real Madrid and Inter Milan.
That has all changed, with Sneijder proving he can still compete at the highest levels, even if necessary in conditions of uncomfortable heat and humidity in Brazil.
"He was in great physical shape when he arrived here and I was pleasantly surprised," Van Gaal said before the quarter-final victory on penalties in Salvador against Costa Rica.
"He is part of the basic line-up. He is one of the five so-called older players who is leading this team," the coach said, referring also to Van Persie, Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Nigel de Jong.
Against Costa Rica, Sneijder was the player who came closest to breaking the deadlock, hitting the post with a free-kick in the second half and thumping a shot against the crossbar in extra-time, before the sides finished goalless.
He also saw a first-half free-kick palmed away by Keylor Navas in goal. The number 10 is clearly still a danger with a dead ball.
Sneijder also stepped up for the third Dutch goal from the penalty spot in the 4-3 shoot-out win as senior players Van Persie, Robben and Kuyt also took responsibility and scored from the spot.
Sneijder had been Dutch captain after Marc van Bommel stepped down, but after just a year he was stripped of the job as Van Gaal handed the armband to Van Persie.
Sneijder was dropped for some games, putting his selection for the World Cup squad in doubt.
It prompted Sneijder to take a good look at himself and do everything he could to improve his fitness.
"If I'm honest the fact that I wasn't being called up any more made me think. From this I have learned some lessons," he said.
Sneijder's fitness path was rather unusual, seeking out Dutch-Turkish kickboxing coach Gokhan Saki to improve both condition and sharpness.
"My eyes were opened," he said. "It was really great and also a lot of fun. For explosivity it's just fantastic. After just a couple of sessions I noticed how effective it was."
As an initial reward for the work he won the Turkish cup with Galatasaray, scoring the winning goal in the final in the 1-0 defeat of Eskisehirspor.
The Ajax youth academy product has league titles in four countries - Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Turkey, plus a Champions League title with Inter, and has already reached some milestones in Brazil.
He won his 100th cap in the 5-1 rout of Spain in the Netherlands' opening World Cup game, and played a Dutch record 15th World Cup match against Mexico.
The 2014 World Cup could be his crowning glory, helping also to erase memories of the losing final to Spain in Johannesburg four years ago.