The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Gods and Geniuses

A voice cries out in the wilderness—but no one hears it. An extinct species flourishes on the frozen ground, making the barren land his own—but no one notices.

As Lionel Messi glided across the plains of the Camp Nou, omnipotent in his ability, making hyperbole the norm, another dynamic little man forged his spot in a sport where there wasn’t a spot for him. He too turned a game on its head. He did so in the harshest of climates—a land winded and cold, an alien hybrid of grass and rubber and plastic, a land filled with oil magnates—but no one was paying attention.

Wesley Sneijder shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. A reject from the old-nouveau riche of the Spanish capital, he’s also an exemplar of an outdated style of play. The artsy playmaker has vanished; the days of Riquelme plodding high up the pitch—a metronome, only ticking inside his head—and swaying games without ever leaving his tiny plot of turf, were dead, we thought. Rui Costa—who, you ask? I don’t think I even know. Totti as a striker once would’ve been akin to calling Materazzi reliable, but now it’s reality—a painful reality for every pint-sized Argentinean without the powers of a footballing Christ. But not for this man.

10’s were supposed to be extinct. They were, as far as the evidence showed. But it was with a collective blind eye that the world dismissed Wesley Sneijder, and allowed him to switch clubs for less than half of an Andriy Shevchenko without any one person standing up and saying: wait, how is this happening?

And then he played. And he played. And, oh, he played.

If Lionel Messi plays with the powers of a god, not merely conforming to the landscape of his opponents, but scoring at will and making the game conform to him, Sneijder does the opposite. The term “footballing genius” gets bandied about without repercussion or reasoning. Lionel Messi is a footballing god. Wesley Sneijder is a footballing genius.

He can’t make defenders into apparitions, but he can turn a mountain into a molehill. He plays with a dignified calculation. Always in control, with or without the ball at his feet, he can survey the conditions on the field to an astoundingly precise degree. The spin of the ball, the spacing of the defense, the choice of foot, the choice of part of the foot, the spin of the ball, the bend of the ball, all of these things seem to register in his mind—adding up in a mathematically sickening formula only to produce a product so simple that it becomes dazzlingly complex.

As a mere mortal, Sneijder is stuck with calculation. He can’t devour an entire team with a devastating run at will. He relies on his passing to put his teammates in the positions to produce the product of his ideal equations. Human like him, these teammates fail from time to time, no matter how infallible the situation may appear, undoing his brilliance for those stuck to Portuguese video sites, watching highlights dubbed in Arabic.

But then there are times, times when he’s allowed in too close—moments when he climbs towards those footballing gods. When all of his calculations allow him to think the ball over the line without a teammate to botch it up.

This happened in Russia—but no one saw. He was given a free-kick on the edge of the box. This was unfair to anyone who knew him, but apparently no one did. He had time to think, time to measure, and time to produce his result. He knew the wall would jump. He knew he could hit the ball harder on that alien landscape. And he knew that if he connected at the precise angle, the ball would swerve without spin, under the wall and away from the unsighted goalkeeper. He knew he’d score before he’d even readied his approach.

And he must have known, once the ball was placed, that his next step would put him face to face with that footballing deity.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a senior at Holy Cross, where he spent four years as a midfielder on the soccer team.


Gods and Geniuses

by Ryan O'Hanlon · April 7, 2010

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