SAO PAULO – In one important and excruciating way, the Netherlands' defeat in Wednesday night’s World Cup semifinal at the Arena Corinthians was frustratingly familiar. For the fifth time, the Dutch were eliminated from a major tournament via penalty shootout. On this occasion, Argentina did the deed, 4-2, following a scoreless 120 minutes.
Renowned for their precision and comfort with the ball, the Dutch somehow have found the 12 yards separating themselves from the next round to be too high a hurdle far too frequently. They have won only two tiebreakers at either a World Cup or European Championship. Even though one of those triumphs came just a few days ago in Saturday’s quarterfinal against Costa Rica, old doubts may have crept into the Dutch huddle on Wednesday.
Following the game, Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal revealed that the first two players he approached declined to take the opening kick. He then turned to Ron Vlaar, who had put in a spectacular 120-minute shift in central defense.
“Vlaar was the best player on the pitch, and I felt he has a great deal of confidence,” Van Gaal said.
But when the 29-year-old defender’s effort was saved by Argentina’s Sergio Romero, the outcome appeared inevitable. Lionel Messi went next. It was his first touch inside the Dutch penalty area the entire evening, but it was perfect. Argentina soon was on its way to a fifth World Cup final and the Dutch were off to play for bronze. But that’s where the familiarity ended.
The Netherlands may have lost in customary fashion, but it did so with uncommon dignity and a refreshing lack of drama. Traditionally, the Oranje could be counted on for two things: stylish soccer and some sort of controversy. Sometimes it started before the tournament, like when superstars Johan Cruyff (in 1978) and Ruud Gullit (1994) refused to travel to the World Cup. Often it unfolded during. Players argued with coaches and each other about tactics, minutes and even salaries.
Edgar Davids was booted from the Euro ’96 squad after criticizing coach Guus Hiddink and then accusing him of racism. Gullit led a mutiny against manager Thijs Libregts just before the 1990 World Cup. Racial issues, club rivalries and the strong personalities that often populated the Dutch locker room often proved to be a recipe for disaster.
The 1988 European title was an outlier among embarrassing outings, and recent history hasn’t been much rosier. In 2010, the Netherlands progressed to the World Cup final on a roll, going a combined 14-0-0 in qualifiers and then the tournament proper in South Africa. Once it reached the final at Johannesburg’s Soccer City, however, it proceeded to undo decades of Dutch footballing tradition with a collective and violent assault on Spain.
The side was fortunate to see red only once as it fell, 1-0, in extra time. Two years later at Euro 2012, it lost all three group-stage games as infighting and the unhappiness that several players had with their roles undermined another campaign.
“Things happened in the squad, but we’ll keep that between us,” Arjen Robben said after the tournament.
It’s been far different this summer under Van Gaal.
“Compared with the atmosphere at Euro 2012, it’s night and day,” Wesley Sneijder said following the quarterfinal escape against Costa Rica. “I had my doubts before the tournament but they disappeared very quickly … This group gets along extremely well. The atmosphere is super.”
Said Van Gaal: “I don’t think you can achieve anything without harmony between players and staff. We have this harmony ... The players are open minded, a fantastic group, the atmosphere is marvelous. That’s what I am most proud of -- making 23 players into a cohesive team.”
Questions about the defense’s inexperience were answered in the 5-1 demolition of Spain that kicked off this World Cup. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and the five backs in front of him averaged fewer than 15 caps each and none had more than Vlaar’s 24. Yet they blossomed under Van Gaal and behind a veteran midfield and forward corps that “took responsibility,” the coach said this week.
The team responded well to a significant tactical shift as Van Gaal moved away from Holland’s traditional back four and toward a system that featured three stay-at-home defenders and two wide players who shuttled between the back line and midfield. The coach even discussed the change with his captain, Robin van Persie, before implementing it.
The Dutch adjusted. They overcame deficits against Spain and Australia and the frustration of failing to score on Costa Rica. Van Gaal’s decision to bench Cillessen and insert Tim Krul for the shootout against the Ticos might have divided past squads. This one stuck together.
“We played a fantastic tournament … no one had expected us to make it through to the [second] round,” Van Gaal said Wednesday.
This was a limited team -- Robben was the only genuinely consistent offensive threat (and he struggled against Argentina in a higher, more central role) -- but it was a couple of missed PKs from contesting the final. Thus ended the Netherlands’ riveting 2014 vengeance and vindication tour, not counting the upcoming bronze-medal game against the hosts that Van Gaal insisted shouldn’t be played.
Starting with the win over Spain, the Oranje proved a few points in Brazil. Van Gaal found international redemption after failing to qualify the Dutch for the 2002 World Cup, the only major tournament in the past 14 they missed. On Wednesday, Van Persie demonstrated his fortitude with a 96-minute outing. He’d been questionable with a stomach ailment.
Midfield enforcer Nigel de Jong, one of soccer’s most notorious hitmen, was diligent and disciplined as he practically erased Messi from the match. The Argentine star created a couple of good chances, most notably a 115th-minute header from Rodrigo Palacio and Maxi Rodriguez’ volley moments later, but rarely threatened the goal himself and failed to put the Dutch defense off balance.
The Dutch played relatively fairly. Robben kept the theatrics to a minimum. It was, all in all, a dignified exit.
“In terms of team spirit and togetherness, this is the best group I've worked with,” Van Gaal said before the game.
They maintained that spirit on Wednesday. For the Dutch, that’s worth celebrating -- even if they still struggle from the penalty spot, and even if they’ll remain the best team to never win the World Cup for at least another four years.