By Jonathan Wilson
At the beginning of this season, Wesley Sneijder was just another promising young AFC Ajax midfield player dreaming of his first-team debut. With Christmas approaching, he was still dreaming when coach Ronald Koeman, troubled by injuries, suddenly gave him his chance. He has not looked back - just over four months on he is a full Dutch international.
Sneijder's rise has been meteoric. Within the space of one "crazy week" - as he put it - he played against AC Milan in a UEFA Champions League quarter-final and made his international debut for the Netherlands. He came on at half-time in last Wednesday's 1-1 friendly draw against Portugal to become, at the age of 18 years and 325 days, the eighth youngest player to represent the Netherlands.
Sneijder had been delighted just to be called into the squad, along with FC Utrecht's young striker Dirk Kuijt. The pair are ample proof that the Dutch capacity for producing new talent is not drying up. "I consider both of them to be young promising players for the future," said national coach Dick Advocaat. "By showing good form at club level they have justified their selection. It's good for them to taste the action at the very highest level."
Profligacy in front of goal cost Advocaat's side a win they probably deserved, Simão Sabrosa's late strike cancelling out Patrick Kluivert's 27th-minute opener. For his part, Sneijder gave a disciplined performance from his deep-lying role in midfield and will now hope to be further involved in the Netherlands' push to UEFA EURO 2004™.
While Sneijder has come through the Ajax school, he is not a native of Amsterdam. He was born in Utrecht, the town that produced Jan Wouters and Marco van Basten. He comes from a football family: his father was a talented player and his older brother Jeffrey plays for Stormvogels Telstar. There is even a younger Sneijder brother who is likely to turn professional.
'Pitbull with patience'
These fraternal rivalries no doubt fuelled Wesley's competitive spirit - a tenacity which has seen Dutch journalists christen him the 'pitbull with patience'. Coming through the Ajax youth set-up, he found himself playing for Ajax legend Danny Blind in the reserves. Blind helped him work on his positional sense before recommending that Koeman take him into the first team.
Sneijder made his debut in a 2-0 win at SC Excelsior on 22 December 2002 and rapidly established himself in the role of midfield general. Despite his slight stature, he is deceptively strong on the ball and his passing range is enhanced by his two-footedness. Plus he has a secret weapon up his sleeve - free-kicks.
In a recent training ground competition, he bettered his coach Ronald Koeman - one the greatest strikers of a dead-ball in history. "He certainly strikes the ball well," Koeman conceded with a smile. "Along with Christian Chivu, he's the best free-kick taker at the club."
His performances on the training ground have not passed his team-mates by. Fellow Ajax prodigy Rafael van der Vaart, with whom Sneijder linked up well last Wednesday night, has described him as a "genuine superstar of the future, and already an important player".
Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is just as effusive. "He plays like he has been in the team for years," he says. "
Wesley is a real Ajax player, with fantastic technique." If his development continues at this rate, the EURO 2004™ stage could well be his.
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