Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Forging a career in football isn’t easy, even less so if you’re following in the illustrious footsteps of an older sibling. The added burden of living up to expectations set high thanks to the actions of a relative can sometimes take its toll.
Yet, in the case of famous Dutch brothers, being the youngest doesn’t necessarily act as a disadvantage. Both Ronald Koeman and Frank de Boer had stellar careers that at least matched those of their older brothers. This should perhaps give comfort to one of Dutch football rising stars: Rodney Sneijder.
It shouldn’t take long to work out the identity of his esteemed brother, Internazionale and Oranje playmaker, Wesley Sneijder. From an early age comparisons were the norm, something Rodney describes as ‘logical’ if not unwarranted.
Similar in size and stature, Rodney is, like Wesley, is also combative, quick footed, has excellent eye for a pass and possesses a lethal shot.
“We all know that Wesley is a world class player, but I have to see how my career pans out,” Rodney stresses. “I hope people judge Wesley on his own qualities and me on mine. I have no control over those who make the comparisons. I am proud of my brother but I will concentrate more on my career.”
The similarities and natural bond between the pair have seen Wesley, ironically, elevated to father figure status. “If something is bothering me, Wesley is the first one I call. His advice is very important to me. We have daily contact,” Rodney explains.
Both were educated at De Toekomst, Ajax’s academy, but it’s there that the similarities in their development end. Wesley, under the tutelage of Ronald Koeman, became a mainstay in the Ajax squad, and by the age of 20 he played an important role in the Amsterdam side winning the title in 2004. Now the same age, due to intense competition in midfield, Rodney left the club on loan this summer, heading to hometown club FC Utrecht.
“I played with Ajax during preseason, had a good preparation, worked hard and scored goals everyone was positive about me,” the younger Sneijder says. “It was frustrating that I wasn’t given a chance. I was expecting playing time.”
Born in the Ondiep district of Utrecht in 1991, Rodney’s first youth team were DOS Elinkwijk. In 1999 in a match against Ajax’s junior side, Rodney scored five goals in a 7-1 victory – he was immediately offered the chance to join their academy, an offer he swiftly accepted.
At the time he’d been contemplating a move to Feyenoord, with whom he had just completed a two-week trial. As he rose through the ranks in Amsterdam he was earmarked as one of the stand-out prospects of the youth ranks, and deemed a likely star of the future. Indeed, some coaches were confident that, should he develop accordingly, he would even supersede his brother. A sentiment previously echoed by Wesley himself.
“Rodney is the future. He looks more like me, but he is left-footed. He just uses the other to walk,” he enthused in an interview after signing for Real Madrid.
“Many people in Holland begin playing in the street. Rodney has the best technique of the three of us [Jeffrey, the oldest of the Sneijder siblings, no longer plays after an injury cut short his career], he always wanted to play as soon as school was out. Rodney will be the best of the three. I can’t tell him anything because he has already got the talent. He just needs to have his head tied on a little tighter.”
His talent hasn’t only been confined to his club, already representing his country in every grade bar U21 level. It’s the next step up the ladder. “I don't think I'm less than the midfielders playing now. But it's up to the coach [Cor Pot].”
The disappointment of not making Frank de Boer’s squad this season quickly evaporated after agreeing to move to his boyhood club. "As a child I was a fan of this club and often went to the stadium. I also still live in Utrecht. Playing here gives me a special feeling.” A twist of fate saw him make his league début under Erwin Koeman – brother of Ronald.
De Boer, who worked with Rodney during his time as youth team coach, holds the player in high regard and has reiterated that there is still a future for him in Amsterdam should he capitalise on his loan spell.
“Rodney is surely skilled”, De Boer declared, “However, he has the tendency to do too much. He must learn he can’t provide an assist and shoot on goal every time he has the ball. You are not your brother I used to tell him. Focus on your abilities and on the best way to improve them.”
The pair held face-to-face talks after pre-season in which De Boer outlined the difficulty of incorporating him into his plans for the upcoming campaign. Rodney, mature beyond his years, showed no resentment.
“Everything happens for a reason. De Boer has been honest with me and also more than anyone shaped me as a footballer.” This statement was a reference to the defensive responsibilities and patient build-up style he picked up during his youth career under the Champions League winner.
Despite making what some may consider a relatively slow start to his senior career, Sneijder isn’t at all unhappy with the rate of his progress – indeed, he still harbours ambitions of playing at the highest level.
“I don’t mind that I played my first official game at 20”, said Rodney. “I saw a lot of players make their début at 17 and quickly head back to the bench, or even to the youth teams. I think I am physically and technically ready for the Eredivisie – I have to thank De Boer for this.”
“At Ajax it would have been more difficult to show it because I was next to two great players like Theo Janssen and Christian Eriksen. This is the reason why I’m happy here at Utrecht. My dream is to play someday with my brother Wesley with Holland. I know I can only do it step by step.”
His debut for FC Utrecht, at home to Roda JC, couldn’t have gone any better. The young midfielder, more predominantly left-footed than his ambidextrous brother, scored his side’s second in a 3-1 victory, with brother watching from the stands. His second goal, which came five games later, was like something from his brother’s scrapbook - a sweetly struck free-kick against RKC Waalwijk. His latest – a consolation against Heerenveen – was brilliantly struck from outside the area.
The defensive makeup to his game forged by De Boer has greatly benefited him. “At FC Utrecht, you will not have eighty percent of the possession like I was used to at Ajax. I need to be more defensive. That makes me more complete as a player.”
Ambition, bluntness and speaking one’s mind run in the family – they are traits for which his brother is renowned; for better or worse. Even though he’s not been at FC Utrecht for long, he’s already considering his future. “Ajax is a nice club. But my dream is to play abroad. I'm not much of Serie A fan. I'd rather play in Spain or England.”
Despite this revelation, he follows his brother’s career closely to the extent he became an Inter fan. “I watch too much football on TV, actually, just about everything nationally and internationally,” While, Rodney admits he takes much inspiration from his brother, there are other players he keeps an eye on. “I enjoy Xavi or someone less technical like Steven Gerrard, who is extremely important for Liverpool - a hardworking player who defends and scores.”
Being the brother of Wesley, many have unfairly touted him to be a mini replica. This couldn’t be further from the truth - Rodney is his own man. There’s every chance he may one day move into a more advanced role like the one his brother occupies at Inter. At the moment he sits slightly deeper playing like a controlling playmaker.
Despite his impressive start at Utrecht, his signing was a controversial one. Erwin Koeman had not been briefed of the deal beforehand, and this has been cited as the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to his rocky relationship with the powers that be at the club.
His resignation came as a shock. “It’s too bad he’s gone but we must continue,” Sneijder mused. “We can certainly get to the [Europa League] play-offs. We have a group consisting of high quality players who at all times remain grounded. Even now with a heavy program ahead of us we don't panic.”
Regular football will eventually lead him to achieve his heart’s desire and who knows, in a couple of years time we might even say “Wesley, who? Oh, Rodney’s brother…”
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