Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Dutch have the Midas touch
Wesley Sneijder might just be the smallest player to have competed in the knockout stages at this World Cup, but he has shown time and again that there is no bigger player in this Netherlands team - consistently demonstrating his importance to the Oranje by grabbing crucial goals at crucial moments.
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Sneijder has at times appeared to be on a personal revenge mission since swapping the Santiago Bernabeu for the San Siro last summer, and could now be set to add to his treble triumph with Inter Milan, by becoming a World Champion and maybe even the Golden Boot winner in South Africa. And to top it off, he is set to be married to one of Holland's hottest TV stars next week. Could life get any better?
He did not even play that well against Uruguay, but he is always present at decisive moments. During the semi-final he often seemed tangled in his own web or was misunderstood by his team-mates. Even in the 68th minute he took the ball off Dirk Kuyt who was in a better position than him. With two defenders between himself and the goal, Sneijder tried a shot that would have bounced astray for every other player at this tournament. But his twice-deflected effort went by the marginally onside Robin van Persie and curved just enough to stay out of goalkeeper Fernando Muslera's reach. It was a massive goal at a moment when the Dutch were struggling.
Bert van Marwijk's side had more possession in the second half but had failed to find the gaps in the Uruguayan defence. The South Americans started to believe they were capable of more than just a 1-1 draw, but their confidence was crushed when Sneijder netted his fifth goal of the tournament. That Robben subsequently scored with a header compounds the surrealism of the Oranje's achievements. Whatever they touch becomes gold at the moment.
Further proof was Giovanni Van Bronckhorst's goal. Gio is on a farewell tour as he ends his football career this weekend. Many felt he was a liability, but the Dutch fans also had to confess that there was no alternative to him at left-back. At least he was experienced. The captain had some unnerving moments in the first weeks of the tournament, but has improved with each game of the knockout stages, culminating in his stunning opener.
When I saw him hit the ball in the 18th minute, memories of a similar goal in a friendly against Argentina were immediately invoked. The Irish have some memories of him as well, as do the Italians at Euro 2008. Five previous goals in 104 caps, all of them beautiful to behold. His sixth on Tuesday comfortably takes the first prize, though. A sublime screamer arrowed into the top corner when there seemed to be no way through the Uruguayan defence.
It settled the nerves a bit, but they made a swift return when Maarten Stekelenburg was surprised by a Forlan shot from outside the box. He expected it to go to his right side, but the Atletico Madrid striker very cunningly changed his target at the last instant. Then Demy de Zeeuw appeared to wander around in a state of semi-consciousness after being kicked in the face, and Netherlands lost control in midfield; many passes went astray as the Uruguayans put more pressure on.
With Rafael van der Vaart on for De Zeeuw after the break the Dutch saw more of the ball but never really had a clue where to get into the box. Arjen Robben was forced to make his crosses with his weaker right foot, the foot that also proved too wayward to score with after a rebound from a Van der Vaart shot. Then Sneijder came to the rescue to bag the second goal, followed by a third off Robben's nogggin.
When Diego Forlan, whose father lost to Holland in their opening game at the World Cup of 1974, was substituted, the Uruguayans seemed to throw in the towel. In injury time they returned to the game thanks to a Maxi Pereira goal, which started a last-ditch barrage on the Netherlands goal. In the frantic finale the whole Dutch nation kept their breath during panicky scenes in the box. It should not have gone on longer than the injury time the referee had indicated. In the end Mark van Bommel picked up a yellow card for an early celebration.
Whether Van Marwijk's side are strong enough to win the tournament remains to be seen. They have rode their luck so far and keep scoring at precisely the right time. Having not played the most entertaining football, but renowned for it in the past, they are entitled to take the Cup away - it will be viewed as a fitting reward for the efficient 2010 vintage, but also a tribute to the magical teams of years gone by.
For sentimental reasons, the Dutch nation will be rooting for the Germans against Spain. The clash would provide plenty of sub-plots, not least the possibility of revenge for the 1974 final defeat, but also as they have intriguingly been the team in South Africa whose attacking approach can be most closely compared to the traditional 'Dutch style'. And thirdly, because currently even Bayern Munich have become popular in Holland, which was unthinkable just a few years ago.
The Germans and the Dutch have developed a friendly understanding recently, dousing the flames of bad blood that have been common in the past. A World Cup final between the two teams would be the ultimate test of this closer relationship.