The two worlds of Holland star Wesley Sneijder
Wesley Sneijder stands tonight on the verge of receiving the kind of
recognition even the most cocksure footballer could barely imagine.
But back home in Holland, it is for his part in the most scandalous
episode of a burgeoning Dutch celebrity culture that, up until now, his
name has been best known.
When Sneijder steps out at Soccer City in Johannesburg this evening, in front of a worldwide audience for the World Cup final of three billion, he has the chance to complete an amazing collection of football's most sought-after trophies.
If Holland can overcome their more fancied opponents from Spain, Sneijder will have won the World Cup, the European Champions League and an Italian League and Cup double all within the space of just two months.
The man who took Beckham's No 23 shirt, and role in the Real Madrid team - before being unceremoniously dumped by the Spanish club last summer - has re-emerged as one of the giants of the game since Jose Mourinho took him to Inter Milan last August.
'It has been fantastic for me,' said Sneijder last week, as he strolled through Holland's new hotel - not expecting to make the final, they had neglected to book to the end of the tournament - in Johannesburg's business district of Sandton.
'If you had said a year ago that by now I would have won the Italian championship, the Champions League and would be playing in the World Cup final, I would have said you were mad.'
Sneijder, at 5ft 6in, fits the current mould for the world's best players. Arjen Robben, David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Leo Messi are all, like the Dutchman, on the compact side, although the squat Sneijder is broader than his counterparts.
If he emerges triumphant tonight, it would surely represent a year impossible to match by any footballer, past, present or future. But his achievements on the pitch are only part of the story.
Off it, Sneijder's decision to leave his wife and four-year-old son last summer to take up with Holland's most glamorous TV presenter, Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen, has engrossed his home nation.
The affair has threatened to overshadow even his careerdefining displays in South Africa, where he has been named man of the match in four of Holland's six games en route to the final.
Throw in that £12million move from Real Madrid to Inter Milan, his divorce last year, a Christmas engagement to Van Kasbergen, his recently revealed conversion to Catholicism and his wedding to Yolanthe in Tuscany next weekend, and the comparisons with the celebrity world of the man he replaced at Real become irresistible.
When Sneijder, who grew up playing football in the caged inner-city football pitches of the working-class district of Ondiep in Utrecht, arrived at Real Madrid in 2007, he assumed Beckham's shirt number, a sign of how confidently he regarded himself.
But Sneijder never settled in the Spanish capital. He felt isolated from his close, working-class family, especially brothers Jeffrey and Rodney.
His embrace of the celebrity culture brought comparisons with Beckham but Sneijder's entrance into that world was less benign than the Englishman's carefully orchestrated celebrity career.
Sneijder's affair with Yolanthe Cabau was revealed when closed-circuit TV footage of the pair kissing in a car park was broadcast in Holland last year, at a time when Van Kasbergen was living with the country's most famous pop star, Jan Smit.
So great was the celebrity of all the participants in the love triangle that the gossip show which first broadcast the video spent 30 minutes analysing its contents and consequences with a panel of expert pundits.
At the time there was a fierce backlash against Sneijder and his girlfriend, and overwhelming sympathy for Smits, Sneijder's wife, Ramona, and the former couple's little boy, Jessey. Predictably, given the fickle nature of celebrity, that has now evaporated.
Sneijder is seen as the driving force behind the most successful Holland team for 32 years.
The injured parties have found themselves forgotten in the rush to embrace a new golden couple.
Perhaps bizarrely for a man at the centre of such scandal, Sneijder has turned to religion, prompted by his new girlfriend, who has a Spanish father and a Catholic upbringing.
Sneijder explained: 'I wasn't raised a Catholic but Yolanthe was and I wanted to get more involved in her religion. We have a priest at Inter Milan and a chapel at the training ground. That is where I was baptised and confirmed into the church.
'I always believed in God but now I am a practising Catholic. Religion has given me a new drive in life. Life feels a lot easier than it ever did before.'
Sneijder's conversion came to light only two weeks ago when he collected his man-of-the-match award against Japan while wearing a rosary, prompting questions from Dutch journalists.
'Yolanthe gave me a rosary which was blessed by the priest, and every morning I use the rosary to pray with her for peace,' said Sneijder.
'Now I'm in South Africa we've been praying over the telephone. I pray before every match in my room. It helps me. If I don't feel good in myself, I pray and I can throw off those bad feelings.'
For close observers of the Dutch squad, such talk represents a Damascene turnaround for a player who has previously been an unpopular member of the team.
Last year Sneijder belittled a reserve goalkeeper, Piet Velthuizen, over what he considered to be the pitiful £300,000-a-year he earned, boasting that he earned that in a month.
He once turned up at the council estate where he grew up in his new, top-of-the-range BMW and expressed surprise that he could sense overwhelming jealously.
At Euro 2008, he argued with team-mate Robin van Persie over who should take free-kicks and subsequently criticised the Arsenal player in public.
At 26, though, Sneijder today stands ready to be elevated into the pantheon of World Cup greats.
And, perhaps as befits this generation of footballers, his value will be measured out as much in the gossip columns as on the sport pages.
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