Sneijder confident in taking road less traveled to Turkey
Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch national team captain, was on the phone from Istanbul, and I asked him something that had never entered my mind until this week: Is it realistic to think Galatasaray could win the UEFA Champions League? The Turkish club may be the most intriguing team in world soccer right now after pulling off a double-stunner in the past week to acquire Sneijder and Ivory Coast star striker Didier Drogba.
Sneijder chuckled a little bit at the question. He has won a Champions League, after all, with Inter Milan in 2009-10, and he knows how hard it is to raise the most important trophy in world club soccer. But doing it with Galatasaray?
"That might be a little too far," Sneijder said. "But we are still in the Champions League, so the next round will be Schalke, and it will not be easy. We have to go from game to game, but we have a high-quality team, so let's fight for it and see what happens."
More than a few people were surprised when Sneijder opted to sign in Turkey instead of one of Europe's Big 4 leagues. This is a guy who made a good case for being the world's best player in 2010, leading the Netherlands to the World Cup final and Inter to the Champions League title. Granted, Sneijder has seen a bit of a dip in the last two years, but he's still just 28 and a central figure for one of the world's best national teams.
Inter decided it didn't want to continue paying Sneijder's hefty salary and had kept him off the field recently, a clear sign that he needed to find a new club.
"[Inter] wanted me to leave, so they didn't let me play anymore," Sneijder said. "I had a possibility to stay there because I had a contract until 2015, but I didn't want to risk anything because I want to play in the World Cup in 2014. So in the end I decided to move. The offer came from Galatasaray. I spoke to the people at the club and heard all the ambitions they have. They really want to grow, and I checked the quality of the Turkish competition. There's real competition. It's not like you come here and there are only two clubs like Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. The quality is high."
It no doubt helps that Sneijder is making big money at Galatasaray. But he says that's not the only reason he opted for Turkey over the chance to join, say, an English Premier League team.
"For me, Galatasaray is like a step forward," he said. "The options I had in the Premier League, I didn't see them as really a step forward. If you're going to move to another country, the first feeling is the most important one. My feeling was really good with Galatasaray. That's why it wasn't difficult to make the decision in the end."
It's one thing for a club to say it has high aspirations, but it's another thing to back them up. By following up the Sneijder signing with the acquisition of Drogba from Shanghai Shenhua, Galatasaray is adding action to words. Both Sneijder and Drogba will be eligible to play in Champions League against Schalke in the Round of 16 starting on Feb. 20.
"He's one of the top strikers in the world," Sneijder said of Drogba. "They have a lot of ambitions here, so they're trying to become one of the biggest clubs in Europe as soon as possible. With a player like Drogba and his quality and experience, it will be even easier to win our games and go forward."
As for Sneijder, he's having to work himself back into top form after not playing for Inter since Sept. 26. Over the weekend he made his Galatasaray debut, playing for 25 minutes in a 2-1 win over rival Besiktas.
"It's a huge difference between playing games and just doing training sessions," Sneijder said. "I didn't play for like two months. I played 25 minutes [on Sunday], so we'll have to do it like this, maybe 35 minutes [next time] and then next week a little more. And before long I should be 100 percent playing a whole game."
There's certainly plenty of enthusiasm for Sneijder in Instanbul. Just as the basketball star Allen Iverson was famously mobbed at the airport on his arrival when he joined Besiktas, Sneijder was impressed (and a little overwhelmed) by the chaos that greeted his arrival last week. To say the Turks are passionate about sports is something of an understatement.
"The people here are crazy about soccer," he said, "and if you do a good job they will love you even more. They told me you can expect a lot of people waiting for you at the airport. But when we arrived there were 75,000 people, and they stopped the airport. It was amazing, you know, something I'll never forget. And I've played many games in my career so far, but what happened in that stadium [on Sunday] was amazing. I can't describe it. You should see it and feel it, because it's different in comparison with all the other teams."
You'll note that Sneijder said the word soccer to a U.S. journalist without pausing and having to think about it. It's a small thing, but it's also a sign that he's already familiar with the United States. He has visited Los Angeles several times over the years with his wife, Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen, an actress and TV host, and he reiterated with me that someday he may very well be up for donning an L.A. Galaxy jersey.
"I've said many times I'm thinking about going there one day," Sneijder said. "But you never know. If you'd asked me five years ago if I'd be in Turkey now, maybe I would have said no. You never know where it ends, but I feel really happy here now."
What's more, Sneijder and Drogba have piqued the interest of global soccer fans by moving to Turkey. Suddenly, Galatasaray's Champions League future is drawing a lot more attention.