Even the departure of his favourite coach could not change Wesley Sneijder’s mind. “I would like to stay at Inter my whole life,” said the Dutchman in August of 2010, months after the departure of José Mourinho to Real Madrid had been confirmed. “I want to end my career here in Milan.”
Two-and-a-half years later, the odds on that outcome are rapidly receding. At this rate he might not even make it past January. Sneijder has not played for Inter since injuring his thigh during a game against Chievo on 26 September, and already the newspapers are speculating that it may have been his last for the club. The player has been back in training for over a week, but Inter have made it clear that under the present circumstances he will not be part of any match-day squad.
On the face of it, the issue is straightforwardly financial. Inter, who recorded losses of nearly €87m on their accounts for 2011, have been working to reduce their wage bill – offloading highly-paid veterans such as Julio Cesar, Lucio, Maicon and Samuel Eto’o over the last 18 months. Their departures leave Sneijder as the clear highest earner at the club by some distance. In fact, with a basic wage of €6m per year, he is the best-paid player in Italy.
So it was last month that the club presented him with a proposal. Shortly after limping out of the game against Chievo – his injury caused by a kick from Sergio Pellissier – Sneijder had flown out to Los Angeles to undergo a course of treatment with the specialist Dr Neal ElAttrache. On the day he returned to the club’s Pinetina training complex, he was ushered into an office and presented with a new contract offer.
Or at least that would be one way of putting it. Another would be to say that he received a thinly-veiled threat. On the table was a two-year extension, prolonging his contract to 2017, which foresaw a reduction in his wages from €6m to €4m. He was informed that he would not be get back into the first-team until the situation had been resolved.
For a time the matter remained private, Sneijder continuing his rehabilitation process at the club. Inter were, in any case, keen not to rush him back from injury – a source of great frustration to the player as he was omitted from the Holland squad to face Germany. Yet it was not until last week, with the player now fully recovered, that the matter became public.
“The situation with Sneijder – who is a part of our history and a player for whom we all wish the best – is that we have been talking for some time about an eventual, necessary change to his contract,” the club’s technical director Marco Branca told reporters. “We want to give the player and his staff all the time they need to assess the terms of our proposal.
“And so the technical decision of our club is to not use the player at this time. It has been taken so as to achieve the maximum calm and clarity. Among other things this will allow our manager to give more room to our other players.”
The word “technical” was not included by chance. Rules against the unreasonable exclusion of players from first-team activities – a punitive action known in Italy as ‘mobbing’– were tightened in the new collective bargaining agreement that was signed last year. Branca was seeking to portray this decision as a footballing one, suggesting in effect that the distraction of a contract negotiation might affect Sneijder’s performance.
That line was supported by Andrea Stramaccioni following his team’s defeat to Parma on Monday. “I am the manager and I have the last word,” he said. “The decision not to call him up was not a mathematical decision nor a punitive move. I see what happens in training during the week and I make the decisions which I think are best for Inter.”
Sneijder is understood to be weighing up his options, but is yet to offer any public response. With a Twitter account boasting over a million followers, it would be easy for the player to put across his views but he is all too aware of the potential consequences. Sneijder had not just been presented with a new contract proposal upon his return from LA, but also a lecture on the misuse of social media.
“My husband cannot write on Twitter,” protested his wife Yolanthe on 9 November. “It’s the club’s decision. Strange, because only Wes is not allowed to tweet. I am sad because he always gives his all for the team.”
This was, of course, incorrect. Sneijder, along with 15 or so team-mates who are active on Twitter and Facebook, had signed an agreement over the summer stating only that they would not use their accounts to relay any information which related to the team’s sporting activity. News about injuries was included under this category – a rule which Sneijder breached as he updated followers on his trip to LA. The player was duly fined.
But if all that would seem to depict a deteriorating relationship between player and club then it should not be assumed that Sneijder is looking for a way out. His affection for both the club and the city are sincere. When Sneijder recounts the story of his life, he cites his move to Inter alongside his relationship with Yolanthe as the two best things that ever happened to him.
“I was playing in Madrid and I was bad, bad, bad,” he told Sportweek last month. “I was separated from my wife and I never got to see my son. When I met Yolanthe everything changed – we came to Milan and then my career changed for the better, too. Inter helped me a lot.”
That was in part down to Mourinho – a manager who understood his mindset like nobody else. The manager fuelled Sneijder’s need to feel important, placing him at the centre of Inter’s attacking universe as the trequartista in a 4-3-1-2, and turned a blind eye when the player got lax about tracking back.
Their understanding ran deeper than mere tactics. “Mourinho once told me ‘Wesley, you seem tired, take a few days off, and go somewhere sunny with your wife and daughter’,” Sneijder recalled. “Every other manager spoke to me only of training, he sent me to the beach. When I came back I was ready to kill and die for him.”
Nevertheless, Sneijder’s newfound happiness was about more than just a manager. It was about the city of Milan with its opportunities for high living and a see-and-be-seen culture that suited his brash and outgoing disposition. And it was about finding a team where he could be the leading man – never again having to experience the frustrations he felt at being gradually sidelined in Madrid.
The club’s constant changing of managers post-Mourinho had briefly threatened such happiness, with Gian Piero Gasperini and Claudio Ranieri variously forcing him to play out of position in midfield or on the wings. Stramaccioni, though, had instantly reassured Sneijder that he understood the player’s true role. “He is the best manager we’ve had since Mourinho went,” said Sneijder in August. “He has made it fun again, something we had lost.”
And yet if Sneijder’s future at the club is now in doubt then wages are hardly the only factor. Stramaccioni has chopped and changed his formations throughout the season – but only rarely has there been a role for a true trequartista. The arrivals of Antonio Cassano and Rodrigo Palacio have given the team options up front that make any return to the old-fashioned and narrow 4-3-1-2 in which Sneijder thrived seem restrictive.
But the real problem for Sneijder is that the team have simply tended to look better without him. The game against Chievo was still goalless when he was withdrawn, but Inter would go on to win 2-0. It was the start of a 10-game sequence of victories that culminated with a win over the previously invincible Juventus in Turin.
For Inter, and for Sneijder, there was a painful sense of déjà vu. He had been absent a year earlier when the team recorded seven straight wins under Claudio Ranieri. The day he returned to the starting line-up, that run came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at Lecce. Just over two months later, the manager was fired with the team struggling in eighth.
Thankfully for the player, that story cannot repeat itself in quite the same way this time around – Inter’s form having already evaporated in his absence. Since beating Juve, the Nerazzurri have managed just a single draw and no wins from four games. With Antonio Cassano absent against Parma, it was hard to shake the sense that Sneijder’s creativity would have been a huge boost to the side.
Instead, with Stramaccioni supporting his exclusion despite often having praised the player in the past, Sneijder’s future now hangs in the balance. Several clubs have tried without success to sign Sneijder away from Inter in recent years – from Manchester United to Zenit St Petersburg – and in recent days rumours of move to either of those clubs have been revived.
There has also been speculation that Milan – whose owner Silvio Berlusconi said last week that his team could only sign big players who had fallen out with their clubs – might register an interest. While the latter might appeal on lifestyle terms, it is hard to imagine Milan – a club with its own financial problems – being able to offer terms any better than Inter have put on the table.
For now Sneijder continues to weigh up his options. With two-and-a-half years left on his existing deal, there is no obligation on him to act quickly. But at 28, the best years of his footballing career might be what is really at stake.