If Rafael van der Vaart were not such an all-round good bloke, the chances are that he would have come to loathe Wesley Sneijder by now. This is the player who supplanted him at Ajax, by and large got the better of him during their brief stint back together at Real Madrid and has certainly done so at international level with Holland.
Van der Vaart, though, is something of a rarity in the professional game. Variously described as down to earth, unselfish and the friendliest footballer you will meet, he once said that "jealously is a disease. I don't have it in my character."
When Van der Vaart lays eyes on Sneijder at White Hart Lane tonight, before his Tottenham Hotspur team takes on Sneijder's Internazionale in Champions League Group A, he will embrace him warmly and the minds of both men will doubtless rewind to the time when, as rising stars at Ajax, they were referred to as René and Willy, after the inseparable Van de Kerkhof twins, who played together for Holland during the 1970s.
Van der Vaart and Sneijder have plenty in common. They grew up in tough working-class neighbourhoods, they attended the fabled Ajax Academy and they made their debuts for the club as precocious teenagers. Van der Vaart is 16 months older than Sneijder and it was he who enjoyed the breakthrough first. Later in their careers, they both completed the dream move to Real for eight-figure sums - Sneijder cost ?27m; Van der Vaart ?13m - while off the field, they have each snared famously attractive wives.
It is perhaps the pair's greatest similarity, though, that has come between them. When Van der Vaart made it into the Ajax first-team, so stunning was his impact that he was hailed as the new Johan Cruyff. A Dutch magazine featured him on its cover, together with the words 'Cruyff, Van Basten, Van der Vaart.'
But when Sneijder emerged - he made his debut in February 2003 - the Ajax coach, Ronald Koeman, had a problem. He saw the diminutive attacking midfield playmakers as too similar in style and he came to the conclusion that he could not accommodate them both in the team.
In the two-and-a-half seasons that Van der Vaart and Sneijder spent in the Ajax squad, Koeman tended to choose between them and, invariably, it was Sneijder that he preferred. Van der Vaart endured a torrid final season at the club, in which he found he could not see eye-to-eye with Koeman, and he left for Hamburg in the summer of 2005.
The same discussion about the pair has played out at international level. Bert van Marwijk, the Holland coach, feels that he cannot start with two No10s and, after initially using Van der Vaart in the role, he switched to Sneijder. At the World Cup in South Africa, Van Marwijk accommodated Van der Vaart at left midfield before he dropped him when Arjen Robben regained fitness. Van der Vaart found himself as the 12th man as his country advanced to the final.
Van der Vaart and Sneijder are fundamentally different personalities and it is often said that the latter's ruthless and clinical edge has set him apart. While Van der Vaart has always wanted to play beautiful football alongside his compatriot, Sneijder, from an early age, considered Van der Vaart to be a direct rival, somebody that he had to better, to usurp. Van der Vaart is much loved in Holland for his continued desire to try outrageous tricks and deft chips; Sneijder, particularly after a season under José Mourinho at Inter, in which he won everything, is more direct, more lethal. He is regarded as the consummate winner.
To borrow a phrase from Amsterdam, Sneijder has long been the bluf boy of the class. It is about self-confidence, about knowing how good you are and showing it. Van der Vaart has it too but not in the same measure. Sneijder advertised his cocksure nature as a 20-year-old, after Koeman had dared to start him as a substitute. He came off the bench, scored, turned towards his coach and raised his middle finger.
Sneijder appears to embrace glitziness off the pitch. When Mourinho threw his pre-wedding party into jeopardy last January by taking Inter to Dubai at late notice for a training camp, Sneijder responded by hiring a private jet and flying all the guests over to the Gulf. "We're in recession and the airlines need people spending the money," Sneijder said, his tongue only halfway into his cheek. He and Yolanthe are the Dutch equivalent of Posh and Becks. Van der Vaart, by contrast, says that he only goes to one premiere a year these days with his wife, Sylvie.
Sneijder confidently took David Beckham's No23 shirt when he joined Real from Ajax in 2007 but, a year later, when the Spanish club signed Van der Vaart from Hamburg, Sneijder felt slighted. Why did they need a new Dutch No10? They already had him. Ironically, neither player was given a proper run in the role, with various Real managers using them mainly as faux left-wingers yet, in their one season together, it was Sneijder who was the bigger noise.
Attention now turns to White Hart Lane, with Van der Vaart having been denied the opportunity to face Sneijder at San Siro the week before last because of suspension. It will be a special moment for both men. Fate seems determined to pit them in opposition.
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.