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Can Sneijder lead the Dutch to the title?

July 10, 2010
Schaerlaeckens By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com
(Archive)

If you've been watching the Netherlands' run to the World Cup final over the past month, you've no doubt noticed midfield playmaker Wesley Sneijder. He's scored five goals and clearly has been the best player on the Dutch national team.

Surprised? You should be.

While Sneijder has always had talent to spare, it's only now, in South Africa, that he's proven himself to be an on-field general and leader. In the past, Sneijder's supersized ego has often gotten in the way of him fully realizing his potential.

Six years ago, for example, Sneijder's manager at Ajax, Ronald Koeman, passed him over for a starting spot. Even back then, the 19-year-old Sneijder was playing regularly for the Netherlands, so suffice to say he didn't take kindly to his club manager's move.

When Sneijder finally entered the game as a substitute, he scored a key goal. As he sprinted toward the bench, where Koeman looked on in consternation, Sneijder shouted some choice words at his manager. It was par for the course, though. Tame, even, compared to what Sneijder would reserve for refs and players meeting his disapproval.

Three years later, the prodigy had blossomed and become a star. He had 35 caps under his belt, had won the Dutch league and done well in the Champions League. At 23, he seemed ready to leave Ajax for a bigger club. But after a transfer offer by Valencia had been dismissed by Ajax, Sneijder called a news conference announcing that he was going nowhere. Sneijder pledged his heart, and future, to Ajax.

A few weeks later, he was gone. Sneijder accepted a transfer to Real Madrid.

The next summer, at Euro 2008, Sneijder started clashing with teammates, including Robin van Persie, also a player not shy to express himself. After a rumored scuffle in training between the two, van Persie took a free kick that had been in Sneijder's designated territory during the quarterfinals against Russia. Sneijder was left to stew as the Dutch eventually lost the match. The war of words between the two players lingered in the media for many weeks.

And months before the start of World Cup, an insensitive comment by Sneijder, who pointed out in front of the entire team that he made 20 times more than backup goalie Piet Velthuizen, led to a discussion about whether Sneijder should be ostracized from the national team, according to inside sources. The concern was that his egotistical behavior would tank the Dutch's entire campaign.

He ended up staying on the team, of course, and now the Dutch are just one win away from lifting the World Cup trophy.

Surprisingly, Sneijder has avoided becoming a disruptive influence on the team. More than that, he's put his ego aside for the good of the campaign.

In the Netherlands' second-round match against Slovakia, Sneijder even stepped aside to let van Persie take a free kick. It was a moment that could have gone easily unnoticed, but to Dutch fans the implication was clear: Sneijder had bought into coach Bert van Marwijk's team-first approach.

Sneijder since scored both goals in a 2-1 quarterfinals win over Brazil and the go-ahead goal in the 3-2 semifinal victory over Uruguay.

Off the pitch, Sneijder has been making changes, too. He has suddenly become a man of God and is recently divorced from teenage love Ramona, who bore him a son. Sneijder is now seeing underwear model/television presenter Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen. Six days after the World Cup final the two are scheduled to get married, after which, it is rumored, they will each take on the other's name in conjunction with their own.

Sneijder, in other words, will soon go by Wesley Sneijder Cabau.

But first things first. Peaking mentally as well as physically, Sneijder has a chance to lift the Netherlands to a place it has never been -- the top of the World Cup podium.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.