Kuyt is the Dutch difference
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- In the waning seconds of the Netherlands' 3-2 victory over Uruguay on Tuesday, the South Americans poured numbers into the penalty area, keeping the ball alive, hoping against hope the Dutch might let up, and let in a tying goal.
But Dirk Kuyt never lets up.
The Dutch striker clawed and scratched like a defender, and his sliding tackle knocked Uruguay's last good chance safely away, preserving Holland's first appearance in a World Cup final since 1978.
The play was vintage Kuyt, part of yet another unselfish and irreplaceable performance that has helped separate this Dutch team from the underachievers of years past.
"Dirk Kuyt is par excellence an example of a team player," Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said after the match. "He is so focused and so important for this team."
Kuyt's focus shone throughout the game. His bursts down the left side set a tone for the squad early, and he almost sniped a goal off a rebound in the fourth minute. He was part of a series of simple, clinical Dutch passes that created a space for left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst to launch his 35-yard wonder goal to put the Dutch up 1-0 in the 18th minute.
And in the second half, with the Dutch leading 2-1, the sturdy blond son of a fisherman gathered in a pass and deftly played a cross into the box that Arjen Robben headed home. That textbook play proved to be the winning goal in the 73rd minute.
But Kuyt's night wasn't finished. With the game coming apart in the final minutes, Kuyt headed away one corner kick in the 89th minute. Then, after Uruguay came back within a lone goal in extra time, he made his final sliding toe-poke to turn back the final rally.
Unselfish play and endless running are nothing new for Kuyt. That's how he parlayed his less than fashionable skills, by Dutch standards anyway, into a starting spot on the national team and a regular role at Liverpool. Kuyt plays striker, but he plays with the intensity of a roving midfielder, harassing defenders trying to pass the ball out of the back and stretching the field with his constant sprinting. Though he loves to score, he seems to enjoy winning more.
When the Dutch played Slovakia in the second round, Kuyt slid over from his preferred right side to the left to make way for Arjen Robben's return from a hamstring injury. While teammate Robin van Persie protested being subbed late in the match, Kuyt, with a decent shot at the goal, played a perfect pass to the middle to an even more open Wesley Sneijder for what turned out to be the game winner -- giving up stats for the team.
Kuyt has said before that "there are players who can change the game with a single touch, and those that serve the team," and that, "I have no problem admitting I'm in the second category."
"Team" is not always a word associated with Dutch soccer. The small country turns out some of the most talented, stylish players in the world, but too often, the Oranje have splintered into a collection of high-maintenance, self-absorbed individuals.
This group contains a few of those personalities, as well. Van Persie, for example, has feuded with Sneijder over who should take free kicks, and suggested in May that Kuyt shouldn't be in the starting lineup.
Kuyt shrugged it off, and just kept playing -- running and hustling and setting an example. He did it again last night.
And now he's in position to do what no Dutchman has ever done: win a World Cup.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.