Well, my earlier criticism of the Dutch is that they’ve tended to play up or down to the level of whatever team they’ve faced each day—a tactic that got them through the group round, but risked being trickier to replicate in the knock-out stage against the cream of the world’s footballing crop. The Netherlands not only showed it could manage that feat again against the hands-on favorite for this Cup—it also did so after giving Brazil a head start. After today’s 2-0 win, it’s hard to doubt the Dutch capacity to shift into whatever competitive gear is appropriate at will—or second-guess Tony’s early warning that this is a team no one should ever count out. Brazil may have done a bit of that today, and paid dearly as a result.
Despite the opening minutes that looked like the Netherlands might keep the Brazilians from making three straight passes all match, the Seleçao sped things up enough to put one in. At the ten minute mark Robinho dashed between a pair of Dutch defenders to greet the incoming pass with a single movement of the foot that sent it sailing by Holland’s keeper—the only thing between the striker and the net by then. From there, a looser, more confident Brazil created enough opportunities to make a quarter-final laugher seem possible. By the end of the first half, the Dutch had to be feeling fortunate not to be facing a crooked number representing Brazil’s goal tally.
Which is why it’s impossible not to tip one’s cap—and bow deeply from the waist—to the Netherlands for hanging in there, weathering the storm, then gradually taking the match by the throat until it seemed to be throwing it arond at will. The Dutch upped their rhythm enough to give Brazil enough of the jitters that the Brazilian defense wound up scoring the first Orange goal. A 53rd minute cross by Wesley Sneijder led to rare (but grotesque) defensive flailing by Brazil, terminating with Felipe Melo heading the ball into his own cage. Sneijder provided a head of his own in the 68th minute to put the Netherlands up 2-1 for good—though an increasingly rattled-looking Brazil managed to mount enough offensive drives to keep the game interesting till the very end. Indeed, had the Brazilians not become rather reckless with their indiscipline (especially Melo’s lame-brain, red carded move of stomping on Arjen Robben as the ref peered on), they might have been able to pull off the late game equalizer they at times seems close to getting. But didn’t. Thus history is made.
It’s often said football is a game of two halves, and this one certainly saw the Netherlands’ losing the first period, then winning the second with just enough margin to advance into the semi-final. Brazil may feel robbed, but that would have to do more with expectations than the way this quarterfinal was played. On the whole, the second Dutch half deserved a victory more than the Brazilian first period. Meaning, Holland’s South African habit of being just good enough remains a tough one to criticize—so long as it produces a world title at the end.