‘I have no words.’
This was the reaction from an uncharacteristically tongue-tied José Mourinho when posed with the question of Wesley Sneijder’s importance to his treble-winning Inter side of 2010.
The Dutch playmaker undoubtedly reached his peak under Mourinho in Milan but Sneijder enjoyed a stellar career either side of this standout season, even if he claims never fulfilled his potential.
At the turn of the century, Sneijder rose through the Ajax academy and broke into a side boasting the likes of Rafael van der Vaart and Zlatan Ibrahimovi? when he was just 18. Sneijder grew into his role between the lines and notched up a remarkable 18 league goals from midfield in his final campaign in Amsterdam.
His 16 years at the club came to an end in 2007 as Real Madrid snapped up the 23-year-old for £20m. Although his time in Spain is largely seen as a disappointment, Sneijder initially adapted seamlessly as he netted four goals in his first three La Liga games.
Sneijder’s start to life at Inter was similarly impressive. The Dutchman was part of a squad overhaul in the summer of 2009 and his first game came just days after touching down in Italy, in the Milan derby.
Inter’s new number ten may not have found his way onto the scoresheet, but Sneijder was imperious as the Nerazzurri swept aside their city rivals 4-0. This magisterial display in front of the San Siro faithful was a perfect foreshadow of the career-defining campaign Sneijder was about to embark upon.
Back in Madrid, Sneijder’s early hot streak cooled as he struggled to nail down a regular position, popping up on the flanks or deeper in midfield. Nevertheless, Madrid claimed the La Liga title as Sneijder prepared for Euro 2008.
The Netherlands’ may have been knocked out by Russia in the last eight but Sneijder’s industry and guile earned him a place in the team of the tournament – as he registered two goals and three assists.
However, he couldn’t replicate this form when he swapped orange for white as his second and final season in the Spanish capital was bookended by prolonged spells on the sidelines. A knee injury kept Sneijder out for the opening months before the incoming Juande Ramos relegated him to the bench as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona stormed to the treble in 2009.
By the fourth group game of the Champions League, Inter’s chances of their own treble seemed fanciful at best. Sneijder and his side were winless and bottom of the group. And when Inter’s old foe Andriy Shevchenko opened the scoring for Dynamo Kyiv, they were staring down the barrel of another early European exit.
But, with less than five minutes remaining, Sneijder teed up Diego Milito for the equaliser before storming into the penalty area himself in the 89th minute, stretching to just get his toe to the ball ahead of Dynamo’s goalkeeper. In the final five minutes, the Dutchman had almost singlehandedly dragged Inter towards an improbable three points.
That goal may have earned a win but wasn’t anything for the aesthetes of the game to coo over. And, at the heart of a Dutch side which worried as little about aesthetics as any Netherlands side in history, Sneijder netted five, less than glorious, goals at the 2010 World Cup.
These strikes drove the Dutch to the tournament’s final where the opposition’s own gifted attacking midfielder got the only goal of a bitty, ill-tempered contest.
Sneijder struggled to rediscover his form after the summer as the entire Inter team endured something of a comedown following Mourinho’s departure. Yet, his career enjoyed a surprise reinvigoration after a move to Turkish giants Galatasaray in January 2013.
While he certainly had some great games in front of Gala’s legendary fans, perhaps the best performance of Sneijder’s career came in the Champions League round of 16, second leg against Chelsea.
Inter may have been in unfamiliar territory but Sneijder was the master of space on the pitch that night. Roaming between the lines, he utterly dictated the play and ultimately found Samuel Eto’o for the winner on the night which sealed Inter’s place in the next round.
Sneijder went to Turkey in search of regular football and trophies. He left after four and a half seasons with two league titles, three Turkish Cups and new home as he immersed into the culture.
His spirited rendition of a famous chant during title celebrations will no doubt live long in many fans’ memory and upon his retirement in 2019 – after short spells in France and Qatar – the outpouring of emotions from those of a Galatasaray persuasion were almost as moving as Marco Materazzi’s tears a decade beforehand.
Before Materazzi had succumbed to the emotions of the occasion, the last piece of puzzle had to be completed, with Bayern Munich standing between Sneijder’s side and history.
For the final, Sneijder had been pushed forward to effectively play as Milito’s strike partner and it was his perfectly weighted return pass which set the Argentinian on his way to open the scoring on the night. That meant Sneijder had scored or provided six of his side’s last seven goals in the competition.
Milito grabbed his second to secure the victory as Inter, with Sneijder at the heart of their side, entered the pantheon of greats.