Wesley Sneijder has gone from playing street football in the Netherlands to becoming a Champion’s League-winning superstar. We caught up with Wesley to discuss his development, how he has transitioned between football cultures on his journey, and what he believes best enables creativity to flourish.
Wesley Sneijder has played for some of the biggest clubs and in some of the biggest games of the last 10 years including FIFA World Cup and UEFA Champions League finals. A graduate of the famed Ajax Academy in Holland, Sneijder broke into the first team at the age of 18 after then Youth Team Coach Danny Blind recommended him to Ronald Koeman. After five years in the first team, where he forged a reputation as a technically gifted attacking midfielder, Real Madrid paid €27million for the Dutchman.
The Ajax Academy is known for its ability to help players master their game and Sneijder is one of many players to carve out a successful career after an Ajax apprenticeship. He is a proven goal scorer, has creative attributes, a tough attitude, phenomenal passing ability and is a dead-ball specialist. All of these factors appear to be the result of a player with a great desire to work, learn and develop.
The product of a football family, Sneijder has been a part of title- winning teams in Holland, Spain, Italy and now Turkey. After a stint at Inter Milan and a nomination in 2010 for the FIFA Ballon d’Or award, Sneijder is now plying his trade at Turkish giant, Galatasaray. We caught up with Wesley to dig a little deeper into his player development and find out how he became one of the most exciting, well-travelled, creative and in-demand footballers to come out of Holland in recent times.
When Sneijder recalls his childhood memories growing up in Holland, he talks of the challenge of street football and playing against older players, something that is often crucial in player development. Wesley explains, “I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood. All of the kids played outside. There was a football cage in our street, where I played every single day. Together with my brother Jeffrey we played with older kids from the neighbourhood, which helped us develop our skills.”
Clearly Sneijder was football obsessed. So, looking back, how exactly did playing street football without adult involvement benefit his player development and was it important in him becoming a technical and creative player?
“Certainly. Street football is much tougher than training sessions at a club. You play with older kids at different levels. There is no referee so it is the ‘law of the jungle’ that applies. When you got tackled hard or were bullied, it didn’t matter that you were youngest or hurt, it was important to keep going. Street football teaches you to be rough-and-ready, smarter and creative in your solutions on the field.”
“Street football teaches you to be rough-and-ready, smarter and creative in your solutions on the field.”
Given Sneijder obviously spent a huge amount of time on the ball away from the training ground in small- sided street football, we asked him to elaborate on his time within the famous Ajax Academy, where he began as a child in 1991. Wesley explains the development environment at the club: “Being part of the the Ajax Youth Academy was a great experience for me. My older brother Jeffrey and younger brother Rodney were also there, which made it even more enjoyable.
It was a very disciplinary and tough environment. The club paid close attention to you individually all the time. Training sessions were really good and the club philosophy of playing a 1-4-3-3 system throughout all the ages was always prevalent.”
Ajax is a club that has a history of a strong philosophy and has been a juggernaut in producing talent. Wesley believes that there is a style of play in Dutch players which transcends clubs across the country and as a result creates players who are “pragmatic and sober”. “‘Two feet on the ground’ was the philosophy we grew up with in the Netherlands,” he says. “From as young as the early youth teams we are trained to be flexible, hard workers and to develop a vision of how the game works. We’re also encouraged to have a strong understanding of positional play.”
There is a great deal of discussion in player development around coaching styles, over coaching, silent coaching and how best to enable creativity to flourish. Listening to Wesley talk about which coaching style he responded to and what he believed were the most effective times to intervene in a session, gives us an insight into methods that are perhaps most effective in developing creative players.
Wesley explains, “As a young player I enjoyed everything to do with the ball. In the Ajax Youth Academy the 1-4-3-3 system was ingrained in our training and that suited my game really well”. He continues, “I preferred a coaching style that avoided too many rules and provided the freedom to explore, experience and discover things on the pitch such as what works and what doesn’t. For me, this was the best way to develop. I preferred a coach who would restrict instructions to before, in the break and after the game above a yelling coach during matches.”
The proof is in the player. Sneijder is an exciting, technical player who has many strings to his bow. So, outside of timing coaching interventions and not dictating to players, what else can coaches do to enable their players to express themselves?
“Be patient, make sure that players who demonstrate creativity are allowed time to develop this part of their game. Stimulate and challenge them through play instead of imposing a style of play too strictly.”
As our readers know, Player Development Project believes that who we are and where we come from has a direct effect on how we play. We wanted to know if Wesley bought into the concept of how a player’s environment reflects how their playing style evolves. He was strong in his response, explaining: “I am convinced that boys who played street football are always one step ahead. This is because they have already learned from a young age to survive in difficult circumstances. In my own experience, coming from a background of a working-class neighbourhood had an influence because those kids in that environment probably have more willpower to succeed. Perhaps this is because where they come from they don’t have the resources to get to the top and have to fight harder to get success.”
Sneijder is an exceptionally well- travelled player. He has played at the highest level in Holland, Spain, Italy
and Turkey. We asked him if he has identified any major differences in playing style between these nations? Sneijder explains, “The playing style definitely varies. In Holland, playing for Ajax meant a focus on attacking, mostly in a 1-4-3-3 system, with the intention of scoring many goals in an organised and structured style of play. The Spanish style was different again. At Real Madrid, the standard of technical play was very high and the emphasis was on a fast style of play and dominance on the ball. The technical skill of Spanish players is excellent and they play with passion.”
Wesley credits his time in Italy at Inter Milan for teaching him that “the focus can also be defensive,” with this style of play guiding the club to the UEFA Champions League title in 2010 – in the final Wesley was named Fans’ Man of the Match after setting up Inter’s first goal against Bayern Munich.
Speaking about his move to Turkey in 2013, Wesley says that he quickly realised “the Turkish people (both players and fans) are more intense in their approach to football than anywhere I had played before. Every game needs to be won and is a battle.” Importantly, Wesley recognises that all of the different playing styles he has encountered over his career has affected him and continually made him grow as a player.
Playing styles are one thing, but on a personal level it’s always a challenge to move to different countries and adapt to different cultures and environments. Wesley elaborates on how he has enjoyed playing in such contrasting cultures and how he has managed to tackle the challenge that goes with it.
“It has been fantastic to experience these cultural differences. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to take notice of and show an interest in the culture and language of the area you are living and playing in. It’s important to adapt, to not hold on to what you know worked elsewhere. Being open- minded to change is how you can grow, not only as a player but also as a person.”
“Being open-minded to change is how you can grow, not only as a player but also as a person.”
Having been a professional player for over a decade, Wesley is keen to o er advice to younger players based on his experiences, urging them to realize their full potential: “Keep on training, live a healthy lifestyle and eat well. It’s important to set yourself goals and always keep your focus. I also believe it’s very important that you never lose your intrinsic joy for the game of football, but most of all – never give up.”
Whatever level a player gets to, whether it’s a local grassroots final or a World Cup final, every player will have personal milestones on their journey. Sneijder has been fortunate enough to win the Champions League, play in a World Cup final and in the European Championships with the Netherlands. But what does he list as his most memorable moments?
“It was great to play the 2010 World Cup Final in South Africa, even though we lost the match. However, at professional level it is winning a final that counts. Therefore winning the UEFA Champions League in 2010 with Inter Milan is my most important and memorable football moment so far.”
Player Development Project promotes and values the use of mentors in football. Sneijder has worked alongside some of the best managers and coaches in the world, and believes these mentors have been very important to his own development: “I’ve had the privilege of working with some very good coaches,” he says. “However, if I had to choose one, Jose Mourinho got the best out of me as a player. His strength lies in his ability to makes individuals play effectively as a team.”
“Jose Mourinho got the best out of me as a player. His strength lies in his ability to makes individuals play effectively as a team.”
While still at the top of his game as a player, Wesley Sneijder also has a passion for player development. In Utrecht, Holland, in cooperation with the Cruyff Foundation, Sneijder has a Cruyff Court in his name. He explains the importance of that court.
“I was lucky that Ajax scouted me and I was able to go the Ajax Youth Academy. However, that’s not the case for all young players. I believe all players deserve the facilities to play and enjoy football. By providing this court to the local community it gives players a chance to develop and maximise their talent.”
Whatever comes next for Wesley Sneijder, he leaves you with the distinct impression that he has worked hard and enjoyed every moment of his career and developmental journey. Still 30 years old, no doubt there is plenty more left to the Sneijder story, and whether he sees out his career in Turkey or elsewhere, the club who has Wesley on their team will have a player who has many weapons to his arsenal – many of which were all honed through street football, free play and the guidance of one of the best development clubs in the world.
Cover Image: Sneijder for The Netherlands in an international friendly with Wales. June 4, 2014. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos