The unforgettable result
It has been unforgettable, July 2 in the Netherlands. Not only because it was probably the hottest day this summer, but obviously for the unimaginable happening: beating Brazil. Before such a game you can discuss tactics, express hope, tell yourself it is 11 against 11, but deep down the Dutch have always believed that 1974 was a fluke and we would never beat the Canarinho again.
Other teams might have a chance as the Brazilians don't take them seriously, but Netherlands seemed their favourite opponents, whom they loved to pummel. Like cat and mouse, they let us live just long enough to make it interesting, before applying the fatal blow.
It appeared as though it would be no different on Friday. Initially there was the severe blow of the injury to Joris Mathijsen, minutes before kick-off. At Hamburg he has played about 120 games in two seasons, always fit. Mr. Reliable. Now he was unlucky enough to pull something in his knee during the warm-up.
As a real team player he decided not to start. Andre Ooijer suddenly had to replace him, only days before his 37th birthday and without a club as his contract at PSV expired last week, having spent the first half of the year mainly on the bench. But, at the moment, Netherlands have few alternatives to offer in defence.
Ooijer needed the first half to pick up the pace, along with the rest of the team. It was all Brazil, although they did not have many chances. Robinho's opener looked like a goal from a schoolboy tournament with the defenders all over the place. An exhibition of the old samba football followed, while the orange team was going through the motions.
Maarten Stekelenburg saved them from an early trip home, being the only one to react to a superb Brazilian move and palm Kaka's shot over the bar. Along with the 'keeper, only Dirk Kuyt was not prepared to surrender, although going to the dressing room only one goal down must have lifted the spirits after a poor first half.
An exemplification of Netherlands' performance in the first half came with Arjen Robben's corner routine where no team-mate reacted to his sneaky little touch on the ball, leaving it to Kaka to chase over to the touchline and collect. The famous Big Three, with Rafael van der Vaart still injured, were fighting the Brazilians all on their own. Robin Van Persie ballooned another free kick into row Z, while Wesley Sneijder had disappeared completely.
After the break the team charged forward as the Brazilians relaxed, perhaps saving some energy for the upcoming matches they hoped to play. Suddenly it was all one-way traffic. Gergory van der Wiel picked up a stupid yellow card, meaning he will miss the semi-final, but his bold run into the Brazilian half seemed to ignite the Dutch resurgence. With some help from Julio Cesar, who flapped at a Sneijder cross, and Felipe Melo's head, making 'own goal' one of Holland's top scorers so far.
After Maicon had almost recreated the Carlos Alberto goal from the 1970 final at the end of the first half, Sneijder re-enacted Diego Maradona's goal celebrations against Greece in 1994 (albeit less drug induced) with some fierce grimaces into the camera. Brilliant.
Robben got into the game and even Van Persie became a menace. Meanwhile, Kuyt was on his fifth or sixth wind and got more and more help from Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, who managed to keep the almost invisible Kaka at bay.
Then Melo gave away a soft corner, probably with the one from Robben in the first half fresh in his mind. This time though, the winger found Kuyt, whose flick reached the smallest player on the pitch. The Brazilian defenders could only look down on Sneijder who directed the ball neatly into the deserted far corner to make the score 2-1.
Before the game the appointment of Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura had been questioned on Dutch television as it was speculated he was not up to the task. However, he did little wrong and the red card for Melo for stamping on Robben was spot on.
With ten against 11, now the Dutch really had a chance, although you still feared for the inevitable disappointment. Us beating Brazil? Ha! Yet, the minutes crept by with the Canarinho creating just a few minor chances while opening up completely at the back. Even though there was some uncertainty in the Dutch defence, Brazil were not there to pounce. In the closing minutes Netherlands had more chances to score than in the entire tournament so far, but squandered them all.
And then it was over! Within five minutes the car horns on the streets mixed with the vuvuzelas around the houses and the Dutch were off to wildly celebrate a victory that had been thought impossible. The Antillean girl from the neighbours behind me could not stop yelling, while a car with Moroccans sped by honking enthusiastically to a guy on the pavement with an orange wig.
It is a fiesta today for the nation and tomorrow we'll think about the semi-finals. And the Tour de France of course, which starts in Rotterdam on Saturday. This weekend, Netherlands takes centre stage in the sporting world. For the first time in years we can be proud and not embarrassed.