Lionel Messi during a practice session
Sao Paulo: Wesley Sneijder has declared that Arjen Robben is as important to Netherlands as Lionel Messi is to Argentina.
Ahead of the World Cup semi-final between the two nations here in Sao Paulo on Wednesday the Dutch midfielder said: “At this tournament more than any other tournament Robben is to the Netherlands what Lionel Messi is to Argentina.
“He constantly occupies two or three opponents, creating space for others. Against Costa Rica (in the quarter-final) he did that a number of times and that helped us.”
Robben has been in outstanding form during the World Cup but, despite his talent and searing pace, he is rarely mentioned when the best players in the world are discussed. Few would put him on the same level as Messi but Sneijder’s comments recognise the importance of Robben.
His comments were echoed by Netherlands legend Johnny Rep, who said Bayern Munich man Robben had been the player of the tournament so far.
Rep, 62 — twice a World Cup runner-up — said he believed Robben has outshone Messi and said he felt the Dutch were more than capable of taking their place in Sunday's final.
“The team is playing better and better, it is mentally strong, is lucky and has Robben,” he said.
“People talk a lot about Messi and James Rodriguez at this World Cup, but for me, the best player is Robben. He was already good in 2010, but now he's really been extraordinary. I had never seen him play like that. Robben is the Dutch Messi.”
He said he was “a little surprised” that Netherlands had reached the last four, but added: “In the Netherlands, many thought we wouldn't get through the group stage.
“I was more optimistic, even if we weren't playing well. That’s why I made France, Chile or even Belgium my outsiders. But France ran out of steam, unlike Netherlands.”
Dirk Kuyt, who has been a versatile member of Louis van Gaal’s team, echoed remarks from captain Robin van Persie who said it was not “a dream” to face Argentina at this stage. The “dream”, Van Persie said, was to “hold the World Cup”.
“Playing against Argentina is not a dream,” said Van Persie. “The dream is to hold the World Cup”.
“It’s great to be among the top four countries in the world,” Kuyt said. “And if you look at the names in the semi-finals, Brazil, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands, that’s where you want to be, where you want to deliver. We want to measure ourselves against the best and beat the best. We want to just beat Argentina -and then bring the World Cup home.”
The countries famously faced each other in the 1978 final, which Argentina hosted and won 3-1, and more recently in 2006 in the group stages of the tournament which ended in a goalless draw.
“In 2006 in Germany it was very different,” said Kuyt, who, along with Sneijder, played in that game. “It was at a time when we were both already qualified. Now it is all or nothing. I think it’s a great tournament so far. The football, the atmosphere in Brazil, the brilliant games and the way we won the duels: beautiful. And now we compete with Argentina.
“I understand that there are 40,000 Argentinians who will be in the stadium. I love that. Against Chile and Mexico, our fans were in the minority. Hostility gives us strength.”
Such confidence may be new-born for the Dutch with Fifa defending the fact that Van Gaal’s squad had to quit their team base in Rio de Janeiro on Monday – because they had only booked it until then.
The Dutch have occupied the Caesar Park Hotel, which overlooks Ipanema beach, and only signed a contract until July 7. The hotel will now be used by Fifa and its army of corporate sponsors for the final with the Dutch, should they win the semi-final, having to use another hotel.
There is relief for the Argentines that they have reached their first semi-final since 1990 and ended what had become 24 years not of hurt but of shame. Coach Alejandro Sabella has looked less tense following Saturday’s quarter-final victory over Belgium as reaching the last four was a minimum requirement.
Sabella will have to cope without Angel Di Maria for the semi-final with the Argentine football federation officially ruling out the Real Madrid winger on Monday following the thigh injury he picked up against Belgium.