Thursday, 8 July 2010

World Cup 2010 Final Preview: Sneijder Makes Real Mockery Of Madrid... and whole of Spain could be next

Florentino Perez, you are in a Real mess. The big-spending Madrid president decided Wesley Sneijder wasn’t good enough for the Bernebeu last season, preferring to break the bank on Brazilian Kaka and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Did I say break the bank? Somehow, raiding the mysteriously bottomless vaults of Spanish football, Perez came up with a world record £56m for AC Milan’s Kaka. Then he broke that ceiling to make Ronaldo the world’s most expensive player for £80m.

Sneijder? He was sold to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan for £12m, around half what Real had paid Ajax for their little Dutch maestro in 2007.

Now 26, Sneijder returned to the Bernebeu in May to help Inter defeat Bayern Munich to lift the Champions League. Now the 5ft 7in pocket-sized giant has scored five goals – including a header – to take Holland to the brink of their first ever World Cup crown. And ironically it's Spain in the final.

Even before the big kick-off here, Ruud Gullitt went public, saying: “Perez made a big mistake. Wesley will be the star of the tournament, he has a brain."

Kaka? After spending much of last season nursing a groin injury at Real, he sloped off back to Brazil after being beaten by two Sneijder goals (officially, the first was not a Melo own goal) in an epic 2-1 quarter-final win for the Oranjes in Port Elizabeth last Friday.

Ronaldo? He had the whole of South Africa begging for a glimpse of his talents, but let the Rainbow Nation’s lost tribe of Portugeezers weeping with a series of listless displays for his nation as they wimped out against Spain in the last 16.

Who can forget that magic moment in Port Elizabeth when Sneijder snuck in to head the winner? Normally a free-kick specialist, he gleefully patted his rarely used forehead and said afterwards: “Some think, because of the Dutch stereotype, that we’re lightweight and flighty. Well, we’re not. We may be small, but we have heart. So much heart …”

Then came Sneijder’s goal and assist in the 3-2 semi-final win over Uruguay on Tuesday. Normally, Perez would be putting out a message to his agents: Get me the best man from this World Cup. Don’t worry about the price. This time he must be mortally embarrassed.

Instead it is Manchester United who are sniffing around. Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti admits rumours of a £25m bid may have some basis. But Sneijder is under contract until 2013 and Moratti said: “I believe that it's true United want our man, but I don't want to ask for too much so as not to fall into temptation. I am enjoying watching Sneijder at the World Cup and I will enjoy watching him at Inter next year too. "

Sneijder's agent, Soren Lerby, sniffs: "Wesley could stay until 2015. After the World Cup we will go to Milan and sit around a table with the directors."

And so a star is reborn. Wesley Benjamin Sneijder started life in Utrecht on June 9, 1984. In 2004, he was picked out by a certain Johann Cruyff as Holland’s top youngster a year after making his debut in orange as he emerged from the fabled Ajax academy.

It’s not as if he was the first of his family to make it. Older brother Jeffrey also came through Ajax and played for Stormvogels Telstar. His younger brother Rodney is honing his skills in Amsterdam as I write.

Real’s £24m move in 2007 made Sneijder Holland’s second most expensive player. Fellow Dutchmen Royston Drenthe and later Arjen Robben also arrived – but Wesley was given David Beckham’s No23 jersey.

On his La Liga debut, he scored the winner in the Madrid derby against Atlético. He scored twice in his second game, against Villareal. He went on to score nine goals in his first Madrid winter... and Real won the title.

Then came a knee ligament injury... Barcelona’s revival... and the return of Galactico-hunter Perez. And on 27 August 2009, he made that half-price move to Internazionale, promptly starring on his debut in a 4-0 win over AC Milan at the San Siro. The rest – apart from announcing his engagement to Dutch actress and television presenter Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen last December - is history.

Another great chapter of history lies ahead with Spain and the Netherlands both hoping for a first global triumph at Soccer City on Sunday. Sneijder said after helping to snuff out Uruguay: "This is unforgettable. It was a tough fight and towards the end we complicated matters. Sunday, we play in the World Cup final. I have to get used to that."

Neal Collins is in South Africa to witness the greatest World Cup of all and promote his first novel, A GAME APART, which predicts so much of what has happened at South Africa 2010. For more information see

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