The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Wesley Sneijder

How Holland’s main threat from 2010 has made himself relevant once more

Wesley Sneijder’s official Twitter handle is @sneijder101010, so either he thinks of himself as a classic number ten 10 or he really loves binary numbers. In the absence of any firm evidence of a fetish for base-2, we can assume it’s the former.

Four years ago, Sneijder was the archetype of an effective and stylish number 10: a playmaker linking midfield and attack, a creator and a completer. He scored five times for the Netherlands in South Africa—albeit with the help of a couple of deflections—and was named the official man of the match four times in seven appearances. He got the winner against Slovakia in the round of 16 and found the net twice in a 2–1 win over Brazil in the quarterfinals, then scored in the semi against Uruguay. Entering that tournament he had just won a trio of trophies, including the Champions League, with Inter Milan.

In short, he was one of the best and highest-profile midfielders in the world. (And we’re talking top-five best, not top-20.) Since he is set to start for Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands in Wednesday’s semifinal against Argentina at the Arena Corinthians, it seems perverse to ask: Where did it all go wrong?

But it did go very wrong, very quickly. Two-and-a-half years after starring in the World Cup, Inter deemed him unsellable. He was frozen out of its line-up and dispatched to Galatasaray for a modest fee (reportedly about $12 million), with none of Europe’s elite clubs apparently interested.

This was strange for two reasons. His 2009–10 was so effervescent that it seemed like Sneijder had the kind of talent that could never go flat, the kind of passing precision and creative wit that would transcend changes in tactics, managers, and teammates. And the fade from blinding fluorescence to dull beige took place during his mid-to-late twenties, when he should have been in his prime. He only turned 30 last month (five months younger than Arjen Robben, five years the junior of Andrea Pirlo).

Perhaps success and wealth dimmed Sneijder’s desire, but that is speculation based on intangibles. He is also famously confident so a crisis of self-belief seems unlikely. What is certain is that he suffered when Jose Mourinho left Inter and the club entered a period of coaching turbulence and decline. There were also injuries. And the formation that suited him perfectly, 4-2-3-1, fell out of fashion despite being the most modish look on the catwalks of South Africa in the summer of 2010. (England, of course, managed to make it seem totally uncool last month.)

So at 28, Sneijder moved to Galatasaray for a generous wage and regular Champions League soccer—but a lower standard domestic league—in January, 2013, the same month the Turkish club signed a 34-year-old Didier Drogba.

The Sneijder conundrum is that at his best, a side can be built around him, yet now, which manager would risk balancing a team upon a rusty pivot? Van Gaal took away the captain’s armband and even dropped him from the Dutch squad as recently as last August, but, perhaps thanks to a lack of viable alternatives and the value of his experience to a young squad, Sneijder was firmly back in favor for this World Cup.

He reportedly enlisted the help of a kick-boxing expert—no, not Nigel De Jong—to improve his fitness. FIFA’s official statistics paint a mixed picture of Sneijder’s efforts thus far in Brazil: 35th in number of completed passes, with a success rate of only 75 percent. He has tried 15 crosses and completed only three of them. But, validating the reports about his improved stamina, he has covered more distance than anyone else on the Dutch team: 34.6 miles, good for seventh overall. So there is effort, if not always effectiveness.

Under Van Gaal, the Netherlands have made more formation changes than a college marching band during a halftime show. Sneijder appears content to be the guy banging the big drum every once in a while, making the occasional loud noise. He’s not been consistently impressive but there have been lambent moments: that fireball of an equalizer against Mexico; the near-misses against Costa Rica.

If there is little to suggest that he can control a big game like he could in South Africa, he still has the potential to decide one. He may be diminished, but he remains dangerous. It is a far cry from 2010; but given where he was 18 months ago, it’s progress.