Wesley Sneijder was the undisputed star of the Netherlands’ last FIFA World Cup™ campaign, and ended the tournament clutching the adidas Silver Ball. But while the challenge of going from runner-up to winner, from silver to gold, has consumed him ever since, it seemed that he might not get the chance.
A discordant relationship with Louis van Gaal has, after all, plagued the last two years of the midfielder’s career, and led to suggestions that he would be omitted from the Oranje team – perhaps even from the squad – at Brazil 2014. The first major decision Van Gaal had taken after assuming control was to strip Sneijder of the captaincy, and he was openly critical of the fitness and form of this former talisman. “I have the idea he doesn’t get it,” the manager added ominously.
Yet Sneijder has not only reclaimed his place in the first XI, but has formed a vital part of the Netherlands side that has taken this World Cup by storm. Indeed, having resolved his problems with Van Gaal, won his 100th cap and helped the Dutch emerge with an unblemished record from arguably the toughest section of all, the Galatasaray player told FIFA that his sights are firmly fixed on the Trophy.
FIFA: Wesley, having won all three games and topped your group, what’s the atmosphere like in the squad?
Wesley Sneijder: When you win, the atmosphere is always fantastic. We were in a very tough group and before the tournament a lot of people were saying that we didn’t stand much of a chance of progressing. But we always believed and [just before the World Cup] we started to play a new system. From that, the confidence began to grow more and more. If you’re in a group with Spain, Chile and Australia and you come first, winning all three games and scoring ten goals, then you’ve done a fantastic job. Almost no-one considered this to be possible but the important thing for us was to believe, and that’s what we did from day one. In any tournament, you have to go in with the ambition of bringing home the cup, and that’s how we approached this one. You can see that desire in every game we’ve played and it’s a compliment to the whole team.
For the whole team, yes, but also for Louis van Gaal?
Yes, of course. The manager stands over the team and creates the way we play. For the majority of us, this was a new system and most players had to execute tasks that we’re not used to, so it required practice. We trained a lot using this system and worked hard on it in the friendly matches. And if you barely give any chances away against Spain, Chile and Australia, well, that’s a big compliment, first of all to the manager because he’s the one who makes us play like this, but also for the players because we’re the ones who execute it. Everyone knows what’s expected, everyone knows what to do. And we always know that on the counter-attack we’re very dangerous.
There seems to be an ability to change the system during a game too, and the substitutes have also contributed extremely well.
Yes, and that’s important. When you go to a World Cup, you go with 23 players. It sounds like a cliché but there is not one team that will go through this World Cup with just 11 players. It’s not possible, and those on the bench need to make sure they’re ready. Fortunately, we’ve seen that, whenever our subs have entered the game, they’ve given great performances. They train hard, they’re positive and that’s very important for the group.
Finishing top of your section has earned you an extra day’s rest. How important has that been?
Well, a day extra to recover is pretty important. It’s the end of the season, everyone has played a lot of games, and those three matches in the group stage were pretty tough. The intensity with which we played in those games was high. Getting an extra day is definitely a positive and we’ve used it in the best way we could – by clearing our minds. Now everyone’s focusing and preparing for the game against Mexico.
Having played in the 2010 Final, does that increase your desire to win this time?
When I start a tournament, I always want to win it. And, of course, some are much easier to win than others. Four years ago, for example, it was a tough challenge for us but everything in the group was good and the whole process worked well for us. But we played the Final and we lost. That was one of the toughest moments of my career so far. But the beautiful thing about football is that you always have the chance to gain a bit of revenge, and here we are four years later. And why can’t we win it this time? I think we have a great team and a great spirit, so we have to go for it.
You’re only four matches away from that now and your next opponents are Mexico. What do you know about them?
Only four matches? (laughs) That’s still a long way to go. We are very confident, but we always have to look to our next opponents and Mexico have a good team. They’re a tough team to play against so, yes, we’ll have to concentrate and focus purely on this match. After that, let’s see what happens.