Everyone is mourning the triple retirement of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. And rightly so. The trio were the three best Dutch players of their generation and led the Netherlands to a World Cup Final in 2010 and a semi-final appearance in 2014. On a club level, van Persie retired as one of the Premier League’s truly great goal scorers, Robben hung up his boots as a Bayern Munich legend and the man who scored their Champions League-winning goal in 2013, while Sneijder came closest to being named the world’s best by finishing fourth in the 2010 Ballon d’Or voting.[mfn]he should have won tbh[/mfn]
Each player is an undisputed legend. They also each left me with a distinct memory I’ll never forget.
April 7th, 2010
It was my senior year of high school and I was on a field trip to Six Flags. The iPhone was three years old, but none of my friends actually had one yet. We were all walking around the theme park with LG enVs and Motorola Razrs in our pockets. You’d think the lack of internet would be a major issue for a Man United fan[mfn]ie: me[/mfn] while his beloved club was playing in a crucial Champions League quarterfinal match against Bayern Munich. But it wasn’t a problem. Back then, I was used to not following games in real time.
I got a bit lucky that day at Six Flags, though. This one guy in our group had a phone with internet and was following the match via text updates. He knew I was a Man United fan and told me were winning 3-0 (4-2 on aggregate).
I was delighted but I wasn’t shocked. Man United winning was the norm back then. But still, I took a moment to take in just how good life was at that moment. I was at Six Flags and United were cruising to a fourth straight semifinal? It was a perfect day.
Two minutes later, there was a tap on my shoulder. The guy with the internet looked at me and said, “3-1 now. Ollic just scored.”
I brushed it off. We were still up a goal on aggregate and had just scored three[mfn]three!!![/mfn] in the first half. There was no way we were losing that lead at Old Trafford.
The guy with the internet put his phone away at halftime and didn’t take it back out until we were heading back to the buses at around 5:30pm.[mfn]I’m five hours behind GMT[/mfn] When he told me United won 3-2, it didn’t immediately register that they had actually been knocked out. My mind only reacted to the word “won.”
Then it hit.
“Shit. What? Who scored? When?”
“Robben. In the 74th minute. You’re out on away goals.”
I spent the entire 90-minute bus ride back to school thinking about Robben’s goal.
He must’ve cut onto his left foot and found the corner. Typical. Or maybe it was a penalty. He probably dived. Or maybe it was a free kick. That damned left foot.
When I finally made it home I immediately rushed to the computer to load up the highlights. I kept staring at the game clock in the upper left hand corner of the screen, waiting for the 74th minute. I needed to see Robben’s goal. I had to know how United were eliminated. When the 74th minute finally arrived, Ribery was setting up to take a corner.
Robben scored a header!? WTF. Where was Vidic? Where was Ferdinand? Hell, where was Rafael!?!?
It wasn’t a header. It was the sweetest volley I’d ever seen. Ribery lofted an inch-perfect ball to the furthest corner of the 18-yard box and Robben met it with a slice of his left foot. The ball bee-lined straight into the far corner of Edwin van der Sar’s net, never rising more than two feet off the turf. Robben wheeled away toward the Bayern bench, totally feeling himself.
When the highlight ended, I stared at my computer screen for a good five minutes looking like Alonzo Mourning.
* * *
Out of the retiring Dutch trio, I liked Sneijder the most.
I know what you’re thinking: What’s good with that? Not van Persie? But he’s a United fan. That’s exactly it, though. I’m a United fan. Sneijder was my greatest tool in propping up the biggest legend I’ve known during my time as a fan: Cristiano Ronaldo.[mfn]I’m reluctant to write about my past praise of Ronaldo since being made fully aware of his rape allegations, but will do so in this blog post to provide full context to this particular story.[/mfn]
You see, ever since Lionel Messi won his first Ballon d’Or in 2009, I made it my mission to prove that Ronalo, not Messi, was the best player in the game. What I believed deep down didn’t matter. My United fandom meant I had to defend my legend.
So how does Sneijder fit into all of this?
Well, he should have won the Ballon d’Or in 2010, not Lionel Messi. If Sneijder had been rightfully crowned the world’s best, it meant Ronaldo and Messi would have been tied with one award apiece going into the 2010/11 season, making my pro-Ronaldo argument easier to defend. I began screaming “CONSPIRACY” the moment Messi received the 2010 Ballon d’Or.[mfn]Obv Messi is the better overall player, but you *cannot* tell me he had a better 2010 than Sneijder.[/mfn]
So when the Transfer Rumor Mill started spitting out Sneijder to Man United rumors during the summer of 2011, I was ecstatic. Not only were we about to sign a world class midfielder, we were signing the dude I became obsessed with during my pursuit to prove Ronaldo as the world’s best.
And let me tell you, I really did fall in love with Sneijder’s game after watching all the YouTube highlight reels I spammed my Barca friends with. His style of play was unmistakable. At 5’7, he wasn’t as graceful as other attack-minded midfielders his size, which made him such an intriguing figure on the pitch. He didn’t make things look easy like an Andres Iniesta or Paul Scholes. With Sneijder, there was always an odd first touch that looked like it would get away from him right before he’d break the defense open with a through ball or smash a wonder goal into the top corner.
I especially liked the way he’d follow through after taking free kicks. You knew he was putting all he had into those efforts because he would hop up and land on his kicking foot after striking the ball–not his planting foot.
I wanted that at United so bad. And I was convinced Sneijder was bound to be announced a Red Devil after the Dutchman revealed he held “unofficial talks” with the club. But it never came to be. I was led astray by more fuzzy reporting, clickbait articles, Indy Kaila[mfn]smh. what a fraud.[/mfn] and Twitter “insiders.” Sneijder stayed at Inter that summer before moving to Galatasaray in 2013.
So, while I don’t have a distinct Sneijder memory from a particular game, he does serve as the first time I was let down by the Transfer Rumor Mill. But not the last.[mfn]ie: Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Dani Alves…the list goes on.[/mfn]
* * *
March 19, 2014
2014 was the year I graduated college–the year I was supposed to enter the “real world.” It was also the year David Moyes drove United into the ground, setting the tone for five consecutive years of extreme mediocrity.
Everything before Moyes was flowers and unicorns. League titles, European glory, world class players, wonder goals, fairy tale comebacks…I saw it all. But it all came to an end when Sir Alex Ferugson retired. When he walked off the pitch after that 5-5 draw with West Brom to close out the 2013 season, I graduated and entered the “real world” of soccer fandom.
Moyes’ lone season introduced me to too many 1-0 losses, false optimism[mfn]He *loved* saying “I think we played well” after losses.[/mfn] and a sick obsession with crossing. There wasn’t a single spark of joy during that 2013/14 season. But there was a glimmer.
Olympiakos were visiting Old Trafford with a 2-0 lead from the first leg of a Champions League Round of 16 tie. United were hot garbage during that first leg, and I had no reason to be confident going into the return match. But as I sat down in the common area of my dorm before kickoff, I felt good. It was probably the last bit of irrational confidence running through my veins leftover from the Sir Alex era.
Then Robin van Persie drew a penalty in the 25th minute. His ensuing spot kick was hit with so much power that the keeper couldn’t save even though he guessed the right way. But there was still a half-second hush around Old Trafford after the ball hit the net. It was like the crowd had already been conditioned to expect the worst. Nevertheless, 1-0.
Van Persie added a second goal right before halftime after Wayne Rooney sent in a low cross that his Dutch strike partner guided into the net. Offside probably should’ve been called, but I didn’t care. I jumped up off my seat and started running around the common area. I hadn’t done that since van Persie scored the winner at the Etihad in December 2012.
Flash forward to the 52nd minute and there van Persie was, standing behind a free kick about 10 yards outside the box. I thought it was too good to be true. There’s no way *this* is how the winner will be scored.
After Rooney’s dummy, van Persie ran up to the ball and struck it with that beautiful left instep of his. It wasn’t a perfect free kick, but it was perfect for that moment. The keeper was expecting him to try and curl the ball over the wall into the top corner of the near post. Instead, the Dutchman sent a bending line drive into the opposite side of the net. The keeper didn’t move. He knew he was beaten the moment he saw the ball whiz around the wall rather than over it.
Old Trafford erupted, van Persie raced toward the corner flag and I ran around my common area kissing the United badge on the kit I was wearing. When I calmed down enough to take a seat, I started repeating a single word: finally.
Finally. Some joy.