New-look Netherlands produce first World Cup stunner in Brazil
SAO PAULO —
The Spanish have a word for scoring five goals on someone. "Manita." Little hand. Five fingers; one for each goal.
I never thought I’d get to use it at this World Cup, especially not against the inventors of the word — who are also the world champions, by the way.
I am both a Dutchman and a soccer writer. And even though my profession has tried to blunt my pained love, to nudge out my partisanship in the name of professionalism, I still spend most every Dutch game I watch swearing profusely at the screen.
Since the above facts are known to most all the people around me, I’ve been asked a whole lot in recent months how the Dutch would fare at this here World Cup. "Poorly" I told every last one of them. "They won’t even get out of the group stage."
Granted, I am invariably pessimistic about the fortunes of our national team. And that’s because I’ve never been given any reason to be anything but pessimistic. Even when they’re good, they’re bad. They always manage to implode eventually, no matter how magnificent they look at first. Usually, the fissures already present in a team full of big egos and personalities quickly crack open and widen into vast chasms once all that mutual loathing is cooped up together for a month.
I didn’t think they’d get past the quarterfinals of the last World Cup — the back line couldn’t possibly hold up, and the team was once again fragmented off the field. Yet, with my own two eyes, I watched them ride all the way to the final. There, deep into extra time, I saw that back line crumble at last from high on in the upper deck press box. Andres Iniesta snuck through and made Spain champions for the first time.
This time around, my hopes sagged even further. Sure, qualification was a piece of cake again, but it almost always seemed to be. Louis van Gaal, who had run the team into the ground in 2002, the last time it failed to qualify — the notable exception to the above rule — had returned and the Iron Tulip was hell-bent on returning the team to the Dutch School, so-called.
He was re-appointed following another calamity at Euro 2012, where the Dutch managed to lose all three of their games, and set about rebuilding. He kept stars Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and midfield bruiser Nigel de Jong and got rid of just about everybody else, replacing them with, well, kids. If the back line in 2010 was shoddy, this time around it was young and inexperienced — the three defenders and two wingbacks deployed against Spain on Friday were, on average, 24.2 years old and had played 17 caps. That was worse, I reckoned.
Worse still: the draw was brutal. Spain was in the group, and their opponents in the first game. Chile was also in the group, a hugely underrated side that plays a system of sharp runs and quick combinations — exactly the sort of team that give the Dutch trouble.
So, yeah: the Dutch wouldn’t make it out of the group. I even said it on national television.
The game finally came. I was nervous. Not about the game as such, but about the impending humiliation. There was no doubting the outcome, after all. How bad would it be, that’s what I worried about. Spain were one of the favorites again, churning out one magical midfielder after another. They might well be marching to a fourth consecutive major title, or so we thought until the second half of the game.
Spain won an early penalty on a dubious call — that’s not being impartial: Diego Costa stepped on the defender’s foot and got rewarded with the penalty. I was right, there went that. Maybe in four years. Van Persie equalized before halftime with a stupendous diving header off a pin-point cross from Daley Blind. But, whatever. It wouldn’t last. Embarrassment would befall me soon enough. My dignity would be trampled and run over with a 20-ton truck and then stomped on some more.
And then a funny thing happened. Spain, in spite of controlling the ball 59 percent of the time throughout the game, collapsed. The world champions disintegrated. No matter how hard the Dutch tried to screw up chances, everything went in. They hit the bar and still won 5-1. The manita. It was the biggest loss by a reigning world champion at a World Cup ever.
I was wrong after all. And I couldn’t be happier about it.