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January 22, 2013, Tuesday

Sneijder: top or flop?

To be honest, I still can't make up my mind about the transfer of Dutch football player Wesley Sneijder from Inter Milan to Galatasaray. Will Sneijder be Cimbom's (Galatasaray) savior and lead the team to new European successes, or will he turn out to be an overpaid former star who is past his prime, like many of his predecessors who have come to Turkey to cash in and not to excel?

I know some readers will look upon everything I say about Sneijder with suspicion because they are aware of the fact that the midfielder started his career in the Netherlands at Ajax, the eternal rival of my favorite Dutch team, Feyenoord. Even more importantly, Sneijder is now joining Galatasaray, not the Turkish team I support, which is Fenerbahçe. Although I can understand these misgivings about my supposedly biased opinions, I do think there are some objective reasons why one may have strong doubts about Sneijder's future role in Turkish football.

Let me start by admitting that for a former Ajax player, Galatasaray is the most obvious choice in Turkey. Both clubs share the sort of glitz and glamour that attracts a certain audience that likes to associate itself with success. I am not talking here about the thousands of dedicated and hardcore fans that support the team in good and bad times. I am referring to those who fill the skyboxes when Ajax or Galatasaray is doing great but who start looking for other thrills when the results are disappointing. It is no coincidence that Pierre van Hooijdonk and Dirk Kuyt first played at Feyenoord before moving to Fenerbahçe. These two clubs have something in common as well: Their fans, across the board, are more loyal and keep on backing their team in bad times as well. Compared to their main competition, they are slightly less chic and fashionable and are more down to earth.

So Sneijder picked the right team, apart from the fact that Galatasaray was the only club willing to agree with Sneijder's financial demands. But will he indeed be the true successor to Gheorghe Hagi, the fabulous Romanian midfielder, who, together with coach Fatih Terim, was the driving force behind Galatasaray's UEFA Cup win in 2000? I have my doubts.

Sneijder was the big man in 2010 when Inter Milan won the Italian title and the Champions League. That same year, he was the best player in the Dutch national team, which made it to the finals of the World Cup. However, since then his career has been tainted by injuries, unconvincing performances both at his club and on the national team and controversy over his enormous salary. Because of his marriage to Yolanthe Kabau van Kasbergen, one of the darlings of the international paparazzi, he has made it to the society pages of newspapers more often than to the sports pages. Can he get himself together one more time, remain injury-free in the tough Turkish competition and survive the hectic entourage and jet-set lifestyle that come with his club and his wife?

While hopes are high in Turkey, the reactions in the Dutch press are much more aloof. Johan Derksen, editor-in-chief of Voetbal International, the main Dutch football magazine, passed a harsh judgment on Sneijder's transfer to Galatasaray. According to the seasoned commentator, it is all about money. Apparently, the İstanbul team was the only one willing to pay the salary Sneijder demanded, while a club like Liverpool was not. For Sneijder's future role in the Dutch national team, it would have been much better if he had joined a team in the Premier League, says Derksen. The Turkish competition is seen by him and several other commentators as a step back for the captain of the Dutch national team, especially because Turkish football is considered less tactically strong. Some are afraid that Sneijder may have wasted his chance to remain one of the undisputed players in the Dutch national team, which has almost qualified for the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil.

With expectations so high at Cimbom, what is going to happen when Sneijder does not manage to guide his team past FC Schalke 04 in March and take it to the quarter finals of the Champions League? People will remember all the money that is spent on the small Dutchman and start wondering whether he is really worth it.

I don't want to sound to pessimistic. Sneijder still has the potential to lift Galatasaray's game to a higher level, whether as a Fener fan I like it or not. But his arrival could also prove to be a risk that was simply too big and too expensive.

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