JUNE 9 is a date Wesley Sneijder should never forget. It is, after all, his birthday.

But his 24th, on this day twelve years ago, was particularly memorable since that was the day the Netherlands demolished Italy to kick off their EURO 2008 campaign - even it he doesn't recall it specifically as being a traditional candles-and-cake affair.

Drawn in a group containing the world champions from 2006 and, France, the team they beat in the final in Germany, the Dutch knew they faced an uphill task to qualify. Yet, they topped Group D with three wins – also accounting for Romania along the way – the first of which gave them the early momentum to reach the knockout phase.

Sneijder says the players knew they were in a tough group but that it came with the territory at a major international tournament.

“You know, we realised we were drawn into the group of death, we knew that," he recalls today. “But if you want to win the tournament, you have to beat everyone else. Whether you draw the strongest team at the start or in the round of 16, quarter-final or later, it doesn’t matter. We told each other, this is a good test, so let’s see how we match up. As for the group of death, we managed to convert that into a fairly easy group if you look at the results. It was incredible to play against those countries, those big-name players at a European Championship.

Despite the fact that it was his birthday, Sneijder, then at Real Madrid, but who would go on to win the Champions League two years later with Inter Milan, says it was pretty much like any other pre-match routine in the build up to kick off. So were there any differences?

My birthday was almost always during a tournament or training camp. You tend to forget your birthday very easily then.

“Maybe a little bit, you’ve celebrated at breakfast that morning as it’s your birthday. Very quickly you have to change that to focus on the match later that day. So you aren’t really in a celebratory mood. You know, my birthday was almost always during a tournament or training camp. You tend to forget your birthday very easily then. The one thing you can do that morning, knowing you are playing Italy, is to tell the team that the only gift you ask for is the three points.”

His team-mates duly obliged but Sneijder was at the centre of everything. He set up the first goal for Ruud Van Nistelrooy, a controversial effort which had officials, commentators and journalists thumbing through the rule books for clarification, and scored the second himself before making a sizeable contribution to Giovanni Van Bronckhorst's third as Marco Van Basten's side secured a decisive 3-0 win over the Italians.

Van Nistelrooy was standing all alone in the six-yard box in the 26th minute when Sneijder's cross-shot landed at his feet. For all the world, he looked offside but was played on by the injured Christian Panucci, who was lying on his back, just off the pitch.

“Everyone was looking around to see if it was offside or not. I personally thought it was offside, and then they suddenly awarded the goal. Then you are 1-0 up, you know it doesn’t mean anything but it does give you some confidence in that first match of the tournament. It also makes the opponent nervous as they don’t want to lose the first match of the tournament. There were many Dutch fans that had traveled to watch us, and that gave us a big boost. When all those fans went wild, it gave you a moment of ecstasy.”


The game was still delicately poised at that point, indeed Italy almost scored from a corner only for Van Bronckhorst to make a desperate intervention, before Sneijder doubled the lead in the 31st minute with an acrobatic half-volley following Dirk Kuyt's knockdown from the galloping Dutch left-back's deep cross.

“It was so bizarre. Italy had a corner, Gio cleared the ball off our goal line... I’ve never watched it back while counting the time, but within 10 to 15 seconds we scored at the other end. That was a textbook counter-attack, with three players, it went so fast. I was at our 18-yard line for the corner but I was fast enough, at that time, to get to the other end.”

Van Bronckhorst added the third with 10 minutes remaining, heading in Kuyt's cross after good build-up play from Sneijder, who would add the man-of-the-match award to those three points he so dearly wanted for his birthday gift.

There was to be no after-party, however, just the chance to revel in the Dutch supporters' glee from the vantage point of a hotel balcony as they retreated into Bern city centre.

“We could see them walking by from our rooms when we were meant to be resting. That was one big party. At the time, I secretly thought: “I would love to be part of that.” It was fantastic, we even proposed to drive the bus past the ‘Orange Square’ to experience that atmosphere, but it wasn’t allowed due to various UEFA protocols. Every tournament we played in, but especially in that one as it was close to home, the Dutch were always present in large numbers."

No party, but a birthday to remember nevertheless.