Final-Bound

07.09.14

Argentina Drops the Netherlands on Penalties in World Cup Semifinal

It was a long, tactical (don’t call it boring) night in São Paulo, but Lionel Messi & Co. finally found a chink in the Dutch armor.

Another day, another penalty shootout, this time the fourth game of the World Cup to end with the cruel and inhuman punishment of 11 men who played till they dropped and did little wrong until the moment when some among them, singled out by fate, failed to kick the ball past a resolute goalkeeper.

Those punished at São Paulo on Wednesday night were the men from The Netherlands, whose orange strip had glowed through 120 minutes of toil, technique, and strength, qualities that were shown in equal measure by their opponents from Argentina. No goals were scored in regulation time of this second World Cup semifinal, and extra time was scoreless, too; but the match, though caught for long spells in a tactical bind, was never barren, never dim.

It was, of course, in utter contrast to the game that had preceded it the night before, in Belo Horizonte: There, the Germans had put Brazil to the sword, slashing and scything their way to a carnage. It was a football match that comes but once in a generation, perhaps not even as frequently. The Argentina-Netherlands game, by contrast, was mundane, but I plead with all of you who watched both games to resist the lure of an unfair contrast. Take the semifinal for what it was: a battle to the bitter end between two proud football nations.

Did the Dutch deserve to lose? That is the wrong question, just as wrong as one that asks whether Argentina deserved to win. This was a long, gutsy, attritional game played by two flawed teams who failed to force enough shots on goal. The men of the match were all defenders: Ron Vlaar, verging on the thuggish, who had the measure all night of Lionel Messi, Argentina’s striker-god; and Javier Mascherano and Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina’s back-field pillars, who blunted the Dutch strikers, most notably Arjen Robben. He didn’t get a shot on goal until the 99th minute.

As penalty time approached, one wondered whether Louis Van Gaal, the Dutch coach, would have the gall to do again what he did in the quarterfinals against Costa Rica: bench his goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, for the penalty phase and bring on Tim Krul as substitute. That brassy ploy had caught the Costa Ricans entirely off-guard and had knocked them off their stride. Against Argentina, however, Van Gaal stayed conventional, keeping Krul on the sidelines and using up all his substitutes so that Krul couldn’t come on.

Why, one wonders? Perhaps because Argentina is a far more experienced team than Costa Rica, unlikely to be rattled by any funkiness from the opposition’s coach. Or maybe he feared that his roll of the dice against Costa Rica—for that was what it was—wouldn’t turn up “sixes” again.

Whatever the reason, Van Gaal stayed with Cillessen this time, but started his team’s penalties with Vlaar, the tamer of Messi. As every commentator on every TV channel wondered aloud about the wisdom of entrusting the first kick to a defender—even as they wondered, also, whether this was the newest gimmick from the Dutch coach—Vlaar kicked…and failed to score. Having seen a chink at last, the Argentines were ruthless. They kicked their way to victory, and to a final showdown against Germany.

Final: Argentina v. Germany, July 13, 2014, 4 p.m., EDT