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Sneijder's development to lead Holland a lifetime in the making

Since Holland last played in a World Cup final, in 1978, only two players have won the Champions League, or European Cup, as it was known before 1993, and the World Cup in the same season: Christian Karembeu, of Real Madrid and France in 1998, and Roberto Carlos, of Real Madrid and Brazil in 2002.

Wesley Sneijder has always broken the mold, but on Sunday the Holland playmaker could top even the aformentioned historical winners; the Dutchman helped Internazionale win not only the Champions League last season, but also the Italian league title and the Italian Cup, for the first triple in Italian football history. Now, he stands on the brink of a historic quadruple.

He is also in the running to win the Golden Boot as the World Cup's top scorer, although he has had a bit of help from FIFA with that one: two of his five goals, against Brazil and Uruguay, deflected off opponents (Felipe Melo and Maxi Pereira) before going in.

The only person likely to be unfazed by this proximity to legendary status is Sneidjer himself: he is known for his self-confidence, which came in part from holding his own in games of street football with kids aged 6 or 7 when he was just three. The line between confidence and arrogance, though, is a fine one: in one youth-team match, he was so outraged to start as a substitute that when he was sent on and scored, he turned and raised his middle finger at his coach.

Sneijder comes from a football family: his grandfather played for Velox, his father played semi-professionally and worked night-shifts so he could drive his three sons from their home in Utrecht to the Ajax academy every day.

Wesley is the middle child: the oldest, Jeffrey, played in the second division before injury ended his career, while the youngest, Rodney, is still at Ajax, and a Holland youth international.

Sneijder is the best example of an Ajax academy graduate and is the only player in South Africa as comfortable kicking with his left or right foot, a skill he learned at the age of 7 by juggling a small practice ball for two hours every night. "Kicking with my left or right is just the same to me," he said. He was a ball-boy at Ajax before he made his first-team debut, at 18, in February 2003.

"It was as if he had been playing in the first team for years already," his teammate at the time, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, remembered. "It was incredible." Within two months, he had played in a Champions League quarterfinal against AC Milan and made his Holland debut against Portugal. At 18 years and 325 days, he was the eighth youngest player to represent Holland. "It was a crazy week," he admitted.

Sneijder's first chance to impress for the Oranje was in the second leg of the Euro 2004 qualifying playoff against Scotland. Holland had lost the first game 1-0, and under pressure from the media, coach Dick Advocaat dropped senior players Frank de Boer (now assistant coach) and Patrick Kluivert, and put his faith in a young team. Sneijder did not let him down, scoring the first goal and setting up another three as Holland won 6-0. "Wesley is one of the few Dutch players who can move the game very quickly," said Advocaat after the game. "He's a kid that demands the ball and does something with it."

Sneijder learned the importance of keeping possession from Danny Blind, a former Ajax and Holland captain, who was his youth coach. Blind once forced Sneijder to play as a defensive midfielder, so he could see the pressure he put his teammates under when he lost the ball. Sneijder struggled. His direct opponent scored twice.

Sneijder had been an international for four years, but was still only 23 when Real Madrid signed him in the summer of 2007, giving him David Beckham's No. 23. His career there started brilliantly, with three goals in his first two matches. "Is Wesley the new Di Stefano?" asked the Marca newspaper. Juanfran, a former Ajax teammate, boasted: "He is the best player Real has signed since Zinedine Zidane."

But Real Madrid's early form soon sputtered, and when it did, Sneijder, the new boy, the latest hero, was first to take the flak. From being a $33 million bargain, suddenly he was overpriced, unable to cope with the pressure of life at Madrid, and seen as a luxury player. The Spanish press alleged that he was suffering from anxiety and visited a psychiatrist. In public, though, he always insisted he was confident in his abilities and had the support of coach Bernd Schuster.

When Florentino Perez was elected president of Real Madrid last summer, and the club broke two world-transfer records in signing Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, Sneijder was worried for the future of teammate Rafael van der Vaart. He was stunned when the club kept Van der Vaart and sold him to Inter for $20 million. "My first season [in Madrid] was tremendous, I felt I was in paradise, but I had some issues in the second season, on and off the pitch, and the way they treated me made me sick," he said.

At Inter, Sneijder found a perfect home and coach in Jose Mourinho. Within 24 hours of joining, he made his debut against AC Milan and starred in a 4-0 win. The next day's Gazzetta dello Sport described him as "the brushstroke that completes the painting." He was a landslide winner of Serie A's Player of the Season and was inspirational during Inter's European success, scoring an 89th-minute winner at Dynamo Kiev to keep it alive in its group; setting up a Samuel Eto'o goal in the Round of 16 win over Chelsea; and scoring in the quarter-final against CSKA Moscow and the semi-final against Barcelona.

Considering he did not want to go to Italy in the first place -- "I didn't like the football much and the stadiums are never really full," he said ­ the decision has been an unqualified success. Mourinho deserves much of the credit: he sent regular text messages to Sneijder telling him how important he was to the team; often sat with Sneijder and his teammates on away trips; and, best of all, told him not to worry about defending. "At Inter, Wesley has the freedom to play as he likes and he has found the environment to express his potential," he said.

The same is true of this Holland side: while Robin van Persie struggles for form and goals up front, Arjen Robben plays a more individualistic game on the right and Dirk Kuyt runs and runs on the left, Sneijder's job is to unite them all. Holland is one game away from winning its first World Cup, and Sneijder is on the brink of winning the Golden Boot, so he is obviously doing it well. Not that he would need reminding.

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