IT WASN’T quite Total Football but 32 years after losing to Argentina in Buenos Aires and 36 after losing to West Germany in Munich, the Dutch are back in the World Cup final and ready to shake off the shadows of Krol, Cruyff and Neeskens.
In the same way that England’s current generation can never live up to the heroes of 1966 and Ireland’s current crop will forever be unfavourably compared to Jack Charlton’s Boys in Green, Holland have battled against memories of the past for so long.
But yesterday Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt & Co achieved what even legends such as Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten could not; they took their country back to the biggest stage of all, by beating Uruguay here in Cape Town.
Glorious efforts from Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Wesley Sneijder and Robben, all of them exquisitely taken even if the quality of the match didn’t always match the quality of the goals, have put this Dutch team in with a chance of creating history and being crowned world champions for the first time.
Coach Bert Marwijk has been brutally clear about his ambition to do exactly that ever since the took the post, guiding his team to eight straight victories in qualifying and arriving in South Africa with a ‘final or bust’ mentality.
He has been heavily criticised along the way; many Dutch critics finding his pragmatic approach at odds with Holland’s deep history of beautiful football played the right way. But surely this match, which turned out be far harder than expected as Uruguay gave their more glamorous rivals a real run for their money, see his methods justified.
Even before the tournament kicked off, Holland assistant coach Frank De Boer – one of those legends of course who tried and failed in World Cups before – set the tone for his team’s campaign telling journalists: “We have a mission: that mission is to be champions of the world.” Now that mission is very close to being achieved, with only Spain or Germany in Holland’s way when the final is played in Johannesburg on Sunday.
They certainly deserved to edge out Uruguay last night, and few would deny Holland have earned their place at football’s top table; but make no mistake, it wasn’t an easy ride here in Cape Town where Uruguay fought right to the death, including pulling a goal back in injury time that led to a nervy finale.
The task facing Oscar Tabarez’s was side was somewhat daunting of course. For a country the size of Uruguay, with only three million inhabitants, to reach the last four of a World Cup seemed improbable enough but to ask them to beat the Dutch while denied their star striker Luis Suarez, banned following his infamous handball in the quarter-finals, seemed bordering on the impossible.
By Tabarez’s own admission his team have hardly played glorious football in the tournament so far and their tactics were expected to be transparent; to keep the Dutch at bay for a long as possible and pray for a goal on the break at some stage.
But, against the odds, they more than held their own, played two up front and even enjoyed large swathes of possession – even after van Brockhorst’s stunning left-foot shot from distance arrowed into the net from 35 yards after just 18 minutes.
There wasn’t anyone inside the Green Point Stadium at that point who wasn’t expecting a Dutch win but Uruguay showed spirit and resolve to force their way back, equalising with a long distance effort of their own through Diego Forlan.
There’s no doubt Maarten Stekelenburg will be disappointed not to stop the Atletico Madrid man’s swirling 25m effort, which ended up right in the centre of his goal, but in fairness the infamous Jabulani beachball did swerve right at the last minute to bamboozle him
The goal gave Uruguay new belief and it wasn’t until deep into the second half that Holland began to put their passing together again – and even then their brittle defence looked alarmingly unsure whenever the South Americans attacked.
In fact Forlan almost made it 2-1 with a free-kick that Stekelenburg did well to turn around his post before Fernando Muslera performed similar heroics from substitute Rafael van der Vaart at the other end.
When Holland did take the lead it came after a move of real quality but also required a big deflection, Sneijder’s angled shot cannoning off marker Maximilano Pereira and under Robin van Persie’s lifted foot before ending up in the net in the 70th minute.
The icing was on the cake just three minutes later, this time Robben making an indelible mark on the tournament with an excellent downward header from a Kuyt cross.
Holland knew they were through but battling Uruguay made them sweat with a late well-taken strike from Maxi Pereira in injury time and a string of late balls into the box right at the death.
When the final whistle eventually blew the Uruguayans disgraced themselves by angrily surrounding their opponents in a mindless moment of frustration, which was a shame because having started the game as pantomime villains they must have won many new friends with their courage and determination.
Holland, who incidentally know they will have to defend a whole lot better to beat either Germany or Spain, were too busy celebrating to worry about it, however. They know they are on the verge of history; the shadows are starting to disappear.
Subs for Uruguay: Abreu for A Pereira 78, S Fernandez for Forlan 84
Subs for Netherlands: Van der Vaart for De Zeeuw 45, Elia 90 for Robben 7.
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzbekistan).
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