On Monday, the man many consider to be the most underrated player of his (or perhaps any) generation announced his retirement from football, calling time on a shimmering 17-year career which saw him win a league title in four different European countries.
While some ostentatiously welcome the fanfare and publicity that comes with such an announcement, calling press conferences and milking their final moment in the sun for all it’s worth,
His big outro was one which complements the personality and subtle style of play that endeared him to so many over the years. He never wanted to be the centre of attention. He wanted to perform to the best of his ability, and he wanted to win.
Super Lig x 2
Turkish Cup x 3
KNVB Cup x 2
Coppa Italia x 2
Club World Cup
World Cup runner-up
World Cup third place
Most Assists at Euro 2008 pic.twitter.com/dQPO4eGikz
— Eren Sarigul (@_ErenSarigul) August 12, 2019
And if those were indeed the objectives he set out for himself as a promising youth prospect at Ajax in the early 2000s, then he can look back today from the comfort of his Dutch home on a job well done.
From day one, he learned that standing out from the crowd was never going to be easy. Coming into an Ajax team that contained Rafael van der Vaart and Zlatan Ibrahimovic among a host of other recognisable stars one December, his job was initially to make up the numbers. By April, however, he was established in his own right, starting a Champions League quarter final and finishing the season with five goals in 17 appearances.
A few years ahead of the number ten trend that swept the continent in the later 2000s and into the 2010s, it was clear from the offset that Sneijder had the attributes and intelligence to become a truly world-class attacking midfielder.
As this was recognised by Ajax boss Ronald Koeman, frequently using the teenager in advanced central positions, his contributions grew season on season, and by the time he left in 2007 – with 180 appearances, 58 goals and an Eredivisie title to show for his efforts – he was ready to kick on and realise that promise at one of the world’s biggest clubs.
His £25m move to Real Madrid didn’t quite go to plan, however, as injuries, management changes and a revolving door approach to recruitment saw him ousted to make room for the Galacticos of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo two years later. Still, he had furthered his reputation somewhat during this time, averaging a goal every six games for Real, and managing a quarter-final showing at Euro 2008 that saw him named in the team of the tournament.
134 – Wesley Sneijder played a record 134 caps for the Netherlands and is also the player with the most assists for Oranje this century (33). Farewell. pic.twitter.com/diRNQ5Oi6o
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) August 12, 2019
As much as he had established himself as a joy to watch on the pitch by now, at 25, it was his move to Internazionale that would define the legacy he would leave behind ten years later.
Jose Mourinho had laid the defensive foundations for a side that could build on their Serie A success and dominate in Europe, with the central defensive pairing of Lucio and Walter Samuel, flanked by Chivu and Maicon and protected by any two of Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic.
In order for his side to truly realise its potential, however, he needed an elite attacking pivot as the final piece in his trademark counter-attacking jigsaw. He needed a player with a low centre of gravity, an eye for the right pass, and the technical ability to create goals and unlock the tightest of defences.
“Who is my perfect number 10? Wesley Sneijder and Deco. Because they could defend, get in the box and finish goals.”
– Jose Mourinho
Congratulations to Wesley Sneijder on an incredible career, enjoy your retirement. pic.twitter.com/4KdDCNf6YJ
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) August 12, 2019
Lo and behold, Wesley Sneijder was signed in 2009, and the campaign that followed is remembered as one of the greatest single seasons by any club in history.
With Sneijder scoring eight goals and assisting a further 15 – the range of which earning him the affectionate nickname of ‘the Sniper’ – Mourinho’s Inter went on to win an unprecedented treble, culminating in a 2-0 Champions League final win over Bayern Munich, with Sneijder laying on Diego Milito to score the opener.
After a five goal showing at the following World Cup, Sneijder was only able to finish fourth in the Ballon d’Or standings that year, something that even third-placed Xavi admitted was a travesty – although Sneijder himself refused to be bitter.
Wesley Sneijder provided the most assists (6) and was directly involved in more goals (9) than any other player during the 2009-10 Champions League campaign.
The final trophy of Inter Milan’s historic treble. pic.twitter.com/mjgax3NFhz
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 12, 2019
He would never quite rediscover the heights of his debut season, with injuries gradually gnawing away during the years that would follow, but by the time he left for the relative obscurity of Galatasaray in 2013, he had directly contributed to 57 goals in 116 appearances for Inter and won five major trophies. In six years, they are yet to replace him.
He took the best of his game to Turkey, winning two more league titles with Galatasaray, before winding things down in a spell with Nice and then in Qatar with Al-Gharafa.
Now he calls it a day, and while some may point to injuries as the reason he couldn’t sustain a career at the top of his game, his accomplishments, performances and goals while at the top of the mountain (particularly in 2010 mean that there is a generation of football fans to whom just his name brings a nostalgic smile.