Strikers strike. Midfielders marshal. Defenders defend. But goalkeepers do or die. Tonight, in Salvador, the city of Candomblé and vibrant African rituals, one goalkeeper played his Costa Rican heart out for 120 minutes and lost; the other, a gangling Dutchman with all the gall of a freebooter, strode out only for the penalty kicks at the end and won.
What theater, what clinical genius, from Luis Van Gaal, the Dutch coach, to bring on a fresh goalkeeper for the penalty shootout, and to replace the man who’d tended goal throughout the match. Tim Krul, the substitute goalie, seemed a good foot taller than Jasper Cillessen, the man he replaced, and much the more daunting. The change, so audacious, so unorthodox, disconcerted the Costa Ricans. What on earth was Van Gaal playing at, they wondered. And the more they wondered, the more Van Gaal’s plan bore fruit.
The two teams had played themselves into the ground: 90 minutes of regulation time, plus time added on, plus 30 minutes of extra time, plus time added on. In all of that time, Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican goalkeeper, put on a show as brave as that of America’s Tim Howard against Belgium earlier in the week. To this writer, the game was a blur of Dutch cracks at goal and saves by Navas, shot after shot parried and blocked, bravura goalkeeping to thrill the heart. Cillessen, at the other end, scarcely broke a sweat, being truly tested only in stoppage time—the 122nd minute—when he saved a Costa Rican shot on goal.
The rest of the game was dogged defense, the Central Americans bottling up the Dutch. They “parked the bus”—aparcaron la guagua—to stop the Dutch from scoring. In a sense, that was inevitable: these were two counter-attacking teams, who had had only about 40 percent of possession in their previous games, relying for goals on breakouts and counterattacks by their speedy strikers. Here, the Dutch assumed the role of “possessor,” the teams that held on to the ball, which was in keeping with their footballing superiority.
But in Jorge Luis Pinto, the Costa Rican manager, they confronted a man with rare defensive nous, adept at playing the offside trap and ensuring that there were always men behind the ball when the Dutch attacked. For the latter, it was all insanely frustrating, the unstoppable meeting the immovable—until the game went into penalties and Van Gaal played his trump card, felix Krul.
Argentina and Belgium, earlier in the day, had fought out a fascinating duel, not unlike chess on turf. It was artful and tactical, with few shots on goal, a display more for the aficionado than for the soccer-fan-come-lately (of whom this World Cup has produced an impressive number).
Imagine this writer’s surprise when no less a soccer great than Gary Lineker should imply on Twitter that the game “produced lethargic, pedestrian dross.” With all respect to the former England striker and undisputed God of the toe-poked goal, he can’t have been watching the game in Brasilia. The score was, admittedly, 1-0 to Argentina, the narrowest possible margin of victory in football. But within that numerical modesty lay a flurry of intriguing battles (including those of some players with their own demons), and the gelling together of an Argentine side that looks like it could win the Cup. (That said, in losing Angel Di Maria for the rest of the Cup today—he went off with a torn thigh muscle—the Albiceleste have suffered a significant blow.)
As Germany and Brazil did on Friday, Argentina opened its account early. Gonzalo Higuain, one of the most disappointing of a consistently disappointing Argentine side to date, scored the sort of opportunistic goal he has muffed for Argentina over the last 12 months. A move started by Lionel Messi in midfield, in which the Argentine star coursed past four Belgians, ended with the ball alongside Higuain in the Belgian box. A split second later, he’d thrashed it into the far right corner of the net. It was only the 8th minute of the game, and Argentina was flowing with dangerous vigor.
One feared at this stage for Belgium. The Red Devils, to their credit, stayed resilient, but Argentina, now ahead, was determined not to cede an inch. To their credit, they didn’t just “park the bus,” but threatened the Belgians constantly. Messi, as always, ran rings around his markers, but it was Higuain who came stirringly to life, as did Ezequiel Lavezzi and the Argentine midfield.
Belgium pressed relentlessly for an equalizer, dominating play from about the 70th minute to the final whistle. The five minutes of time added on at the end saw some manic football, with Thibaut Courtois in the Belgian goal shutting out Messi in a mouth-watering one-on-one—the seventh time he has played against Messi this season and kept him goalless. But the most telling fact on the night was that Belgium was kept goalless, too.
Semifinals: Brazil vs. Germany (July 8); Argentina vs. the Netherlands (July 9).