RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A year ago, Wesley Sneijder was out of form, out of shape and playing out of position for his Turkish club.
Now, thanks to a regime of mixed martial arts training and more playing time with Galatasaray, the Dutch midfield playmaker is fighting fit and looking to repeat his heroics from the 2010 World Cup in Brazil.
Sneijder was the star of the Netherlands’ charge to the World Cup final in South Africa and the tournament’s joint top scorer with five goals, including two to oust Brazil in the quarterfinals.
In training Tuesday, he looked the part — sprinting after balls and firing in free kicks.
It was a totally different Sneijder from the player coach Louis van Gaal stripped of the Netherlands’ captaincy last year after a drawn-out transfer from Inter Milan to Galatasaray and a series of injuries plunged him into a form crisis.
“First he has to get fit, then into form, and then I’ll compare him with what I have available,” Van Gaal said last year.
Sneijder took the criticism to heart and turned this year to a mixed martial arts fighter to get back in shape. It paid off with a ticket to Brazil.
“They were explosive training sessions,” he said. “It has made me more explosive in the first meters. I feel that I’ve benefited.”
He also says that playing more since the winter break has helped hone his match fitness. Sneijder crowned his return to form by scoring the only goal in Turkey’s domestic cup final last month to give Galatasaray a record 15th cup triumph.
And even though he no longer wears the captain’s armband, he is still an influential force on the field, given a free hand to roam behind strikers Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben and set them free with his trademark incisive passes.
“I’m not captain any more, but I’m still a leader,” he told Dutch daily De Telegraaf at a meeting between players and Dutch reporters in Rio.
Van Gaal, whose decision to take the captaincy from Sneijder may have proved a motivational masterstroke, likes what he’s seeing at the team’s training sessions ahead of the World Cup.
“Wesley is very fit. If he stays in form, he can mean a lot to us,” the coach said. “I’m unbelievably happy with that.”
This is a big week for the diminutive midfielder who rose through Ajax’s fabled training system before playing for Real Madrid and winning the 2010 Champions League with Inter Milan. He turned 30 on Monday and will earn his 100th international cap for the Netherlands when the team takes on Spain on Friday in Salvador.
“Time flies,” he said. “Ten years ago, I thought 30-year-old footballers were old. Now I’m one of them. But I hope to keep going. You haven’t seen the back of me yet.”
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