Four years ago, in the cauldron of Johannesburg, Spain shimmied its way around a brutal Dutch team to win the World Cup, a victory of elegance over oafishness. Today, at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador—in the steamy northeastern coast of Brazil—we saw the Dutch Reconquista. And what a stirring sight it was, even as it broke the hearts of the millions of fans who had come to love the way Spain plays its football.
Rampant Dutchmen ran and swerved and barged past a Spanish team that showed its age, its legs leaden, its morale reduced to pulp, its goalkeeper—a proud veteran with more national caps to his name than any Spanish player—letting in a gush of goals as if he were a dyke unplugged.
The Netherlands won 5-1, in what was perhaps the most startling rout of any top-ranked national team in World Cup history. This wasn’t a matter of numbers alone, although five goals constitute a humiliation that will forever scar Vicente del Bosque, Spain’s coach, and Iker Casillas, its ill-starred goalie—not to mention the entire Spanish defence. It was a cosmic rout, signifying the end of an order, even the death of Spanish football as it is currently played.
In fact, when Casillas conceded his fourth goal in the 72nd minute, one could sense a cry of despair traverse the world of those who love the game. Casillas gifted the ball to Robin Van Persie right in front of the Spanish goal, and as the Dutchman buried the ball in the back of the net, it was as if he had buried a dagger in the Spanish ‘keeper’s heart. Casillas, an oaken stalwart, a generous sportsman, a model technician, an indefatigable athlete, had committed an error of such monumental awfulness that his faced drained at once of all blood and color. A picture of anguish, stunned immobile, he died a death worse than death itself: he plummeted from grace in front of the whole world.
No one could have foreseen this result in the game’s first forty minutes. Spain may not have been its usual, silken, dominant self, but it was a goal up and had just squandered an opportunity to lead by two when David Silva, in the 42nd minute, missed a chip over the advancing Dutch goalkeeper. Earlier, Diego Costa, Spain’s center-forward, had “manufactured” a penalty after appearing to be brought down in the Dutch box by a naïve young defender. Xabi Alonso scored from the spot, and one sensed that the Iberians, now in cruise-control, would win the game nonchalantly.
Pause, here, for a side-story: Costa is a Brazilian who elected to play for his adoptive Spain over the country of his birth. Consequently, he was booed every time he touched the ball by the boorish, and unforgiving, Brazilians in the crowd. Costa was to prove himself equally boorish when, ten minutes into the second-half, he headbutted Martins Indi, a Dutch midfielder. The referee did not see the assault, so Costa wasn’t booked on the spot; but he can expect a post-game suspension for at least a match, or, more fittingly, for more than one.
Even as we mourn the felling of Spain, let us celebrate the Dutch. Van Persie and Arjen Robben scored goals of raging beauty, of the kind that old-school sports writers would describe as “incandescent.” While assisted by Casillas’s error in coming off his line, Van Persie’s headed goal in the 44th minute was a piece of sublime flight: he launched himself, head first, like a human projectile. The Netherlands’ third goal, scored by Robben, will make every highlights package for the 2014 World Cup. Both goals came at the end of long, flighted, inch-perfect passes from young Daley Blind, a Dutch midfielder who will, by the end of the cup, be a household name.
Make way for the Dutch. And as you do so, spare a thought for poor, dear Iker Casillas. There is no shame in weeping for a good man.