Well-travelled Dutch stars Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were busy packing their suitcases once again last summer after Real Madrid called an end to their inconsistent two-year stints. Inter Milan and Bayern Munich were more than happy to open their respective doors, however, and both clubs have reaped the rewards thereafter. Unsurprisingly, Netherlands fans are also excited by the prospect of the in-form duo showing what they can do at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The two players moved to the Santiago Bernabeu along with compatriot Royston Drenthe in the summer of 2007, following the election of then-club President Ramon Calderon. Sneijder, 25, had been snapped up from Ajax with a reputation as the next great hope of the Dutch game, and with coach Bernd Schuster handing him responsibility for coordinating the team’s attacks, he inherited David Beckham’s No23 shirt.
It was a hugely symbolic gesture and Sneijder’s Madrid career kicked off with the decisive goal in a 2-1 win over derby rivals Atletico Madrid, a strike that quickly earned him a place in the hearts of the faithful. After Robinho then departed for Manchester City, he was handed the No10 jersey more befitting his role as playmaker.
For his part, 26-year-old Arjen Robben was brought in from Chelsea for €36m and billed by Calderon as “the best left-winger in the world”. The player himself was similarly thrilled by the switch.
“I’m at Real Madrid; I’m living a dream,” he said during his presentation to 5,000 enthusiastic supporters. The only cloud on the horizon was Robben’s reputation for fragility, though despite nine injuries in two years he denied being “a player made of glass”.
Few could have imagined, then, that two seasons later, and having helped claim the Spanish title in their maiden campaign, the pair would be nudged towards the departure lounge. Events in the intervening months had nonetheless brought their presence into question, with a new president being elected, a new coach taking the reins and the club splashing out record sums for Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka.
Turning the page
Despite those developments, Sneijder and Robben were not keen to leave. “The club decided to sell me against my will,” said Robben recently, anxious now to turn the page. “When a club wants you to go, as a player there’s nothing you can do.” Sneijder echoed those sentiments, explaining that “the problems started early in the second season, but I prefer not to talk about Real because I’m happy at Inter.”
Jorge Valdano, the Spanish capital side’s director general, said: “They left to take up starting roles which they wouldn’t have had at Real.” Merengue midfielder Guti also gave his opinion at the time: “If I’d been an official or a coach at Real, I wouldn’t have sold Wesley. However, the club had financial obligations.”
Instead of letting his head drop, Sneijder completed his transfer to Inter desperate to prove his worth as soon as possible, and he made a stunning start to the 2009/10 campaign with a role in I Nerazzuri’s 4-0 derby triumph over neighbours AC Milan. Thanks to his reading the game and pinpoint passing, not to mention his powerful shooting and deadly free-kicks, he has since become one of the most influential playmakers in Serie A.
Robben’s debut for Bayern proved equally explosive, the left-sided dynamo weighing in with two goals after coming on as a substitute in the 3-0 defeat of Wolfsburg on 29 August. “The arrival of a player of his class changes the whole team,” said Chelsea's Michael Ballack, who has kept a close eye on the Bundesliga. “Arjen is quick and he’s a great dribbler. I don’t see any other players like him in Germany today.”
There is, perhaps, one other footballer in Germany cast from a similar mould and, happily for Bayern, he is also on the Bavarian club’s books. Robben has forged a formidable understanding with gifted French international Franck Ribery, but unfortunately for coach Louis van Gaal, the pair have rarely been available at the same time due to their various injuries.
Like his compatriot, Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk is also hoping Robben can put the fitness worries to one side as the summer draws ever closer. The Oranje boss has followed the renaissance of both Robben and Sneijder with particular interest after they played an important role during the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, and he knows that both can make the difference with a dribble, a break down the flank, a pass in behind the defence or a set-piece. In short, they provide the match-winning spark in a line-up boasting solidity and balance in every department.
The Netherlands were the first side from Europe to book their ticket to South Africa and this year's global showpiece could provide Robben, who boasts 11 goals from his 45 appearances, and Sneijder, scorer of 12 in 58, a platform to show the entire world that they have lost none of their talent.
Of course, between now and then the duo also have a few more objectives to complete before they can put their frustrating experience with Los Merengues behind them for good. As Sneijder put it: “I’d really like to face Real Madrid in the Champions League.”