Belgium, Netherlands, like yoyos at World Cup
SAO PAULO (AP) Together, they are called the Low Countries - the Netherlands and Belgium united by the flatness of their lands. At the World Cup though, it has been all ups and downs.
It seemed that whenever one neighbor was sinking, another soared. By the looks of it this year, they may be passing by each other again, with the Dutch going down, craning their necks as the Belgians go up.
Even before the World Cup kicks off, Belgium has already won one thing from its northern neighbor: Admiration.
Ruud Gullit, captain of the Dutch team which won the 1988 European Championship, says that in the Netherlands ''people feel good that the Belgians are finally able to show'' their abilities.
In one of the oldest football rivalries in the world - there has been 123 matches between the two sides dating all the way back to 1905 - it has mostly been the Netherlands that charmed the world. That's in part because the Dutch often played the way Belgium could only dream about - attack-minded, adventurous, even revolutionary.
And the Dutch had two World Cup final appearances in 1974 and 1978 to show for it, plus the tag ''the best team never to win the World Cup.'' They had players like Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp, and the Total Football tactical innovation to thrill fans around the world in their signature brilliant orange shirts.
The Belgians during most of those days? Masters at negative play, more suitable for their all-black away shirt than their usual crimson red.
Little wonder that while the Dutch were known for their attacking players, Belgium had goalies like Jean-Marie Pfaff and Michel Preud'homme becoming the World Cup standouts of the 1986 and 1994 editions respectively. When Belgium did really well, like reaching the semifinal of the 1986 World Cup, it often seemed more by happenstance than design.
The Dutch were back in the final of the 2010 World Cup at a time when Belgium was languishing in 59th place. Last September, however, Belgium overtook the Netherlands for the first time in the history of the FIFA ranking and now stands at 11 compared to 15 for the Dutch.
It is why many believe the 2014 World Cup could be so important in the balance of power between the two neighbors.
For once, the Dutch seem like a spent force compared to the Belgians. Youth used to spring eternal from the Dutch programs with young kids pushing out the veterans at will. In Brazil, the Dutch fans are counting again on veterans Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben to shine, like they did in 2006 and 2010.
It even forced them to rethink the mantra that seemed to be used by any Dutch team: winning isn't everything, winning beautifully is just as important.
''I don't think we're capable at the moment of playing tiki-taka or beautiful football,'' Robben said in Rio.
And then he started echoing the Belgian approach of old.
''In the end, it's all about the result,'' he said. ''The counterattack is a very dangerous weapon that we're certainly going to use.''
So the pendulum has swung Belgium's way.
These days, the playmaking of Chelsea's Eden Hazard thrills more than that of Wesley Sneijder. When it comes to youth, Belgium is now among the three youngest squads at the cup, with an average age of 25 years, 11 months.
And what Belgium has gained in attack, it has not lost in defense. With Vincent Kompany leading Manchester City to its second Premier League title in three years, Belgium has the foundation for a solid team, while adding creativity up front.
Perhaps most importantly, Belgium no longer really looks up to its northern neighbor in awe. So often, there was a measure of almost unhealthy respect. Even the fans fit the bill. When many stadiums were turned into seas of orange, the Belgians were, well, harder to find.
''They really have changed, because they always were the underdog,'' Gullit said.
Over the past decades, Dutch players spread over the top leagues in the world, sometimes already as teenagers. Some flopped but those who succeeded built splendid careers matching skills with poise bordering on cockiness.
Now, its Belgium's players who are playing abroad with the biggest clubs and are brimming with the kind of confidence that so often was lacking.
''Their self-confidence is much bigger than I would have thought,'' said Belgian federation chief executive Steven Martens.
It allows coach Marc Wilmots to say what only leaders of the very biggest teams can say: ''I fear nothing or no one.''
Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed to this report from Rio.
Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert