At times they looked like making heavy weather of it, particularly in the last couple of minutes of stoppage time. Indeed, for the first twenty minutes of the second half it looked as if both teams playing in this World Cup semi-final were going to sleepwalk their way into extra-time, but eventually the Netherlands out-muscled Uruguay to book themselves a place in the World Cup final for the first time since disco was in vogue. The question now is whether they will be set up for a Central European derby match against their biggest rivals, Germany, or a match against the World Cup semi-final debutants, Spain.
Uruguay, of course, had used up much the goodwill that might had been issued in their direction with their antics against Ghana in the quarter-finals. This, however, doesn’t undo the level of their achievement in getting this far. It was their biggest match in six decades, and the question that they may now be asking themselves is one of why they didn’t push harder with twenty minutes to play, because when they did give it everything out of desperation in the closing minutes of the game, this apparently functional Dutch defence suddenly (and, considering the circumstances, understandably) looked flustered. The Netherlands struggled over the line in a match that they could have won by three or four clear goals. It was that sort of night.
It took less than five minutes for the Netherlands to impose themselves, with Dirk Kuyt, who curiously resembles a pine coffee table, for some reason, shooting a foot or so over Fernando Muslera’s crossbar. From here on, though, the match settled into a niggly, slightly nervous affair, with the two teams looking like two caged tigers facing off through a thick layer of perspex. After eighteen minutes, though, the match suddenly was set alight by an absolute thunderbolt from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, who, picking up the ball on the left-hand side, fired a shot like an arrow through the air and into the top corner of Muslera’s net. It’s the goal of the tournament of the tournament.
Uruguay woke up after the goal, but the Netherlands kept up the hassling and the harrying, not allowing them any room on the ball and chasing them down blind alleys. The niggliness grew and it almost descended into a fight when Demy de Zeeuw was caught in the face by Martin Caceres, who was trying an overhead kick and could consider himself a little unfortunate to get a yellow card for his troubles. The threat from Uruguay had been slowly building when, four minutes from half-time, Uruguay snatched an equaliser and, while Diego Forlan’s will go down on the official paperwork, it rather feels as if the designer of the Adidas Jubilani also deserves some credit here. Forlan’s shot seemed to deceive Maarten Stekelenberg and the ball swerved into the roof of the net. Half-time came with the two sides level and very little between them.
Five minutes into a pedestrian second half, the Netherlands suddenly gifted Uruguay half a chance when Khalid Boulahrouz’s weak backpass, forced Stekelenberg to hurriedly clear under pressure from Forlan, and Edinson Cavani’s lobbed effort on goal had to be headed to safety by Van Bronckhorst. The two teams continued prod and poke each other – a free-kick from Forlan forced a decent save from Stekelenberg – but then, with just over twenty minutes left to play, came the moment that changed the match. Arjen Robben had just shot over after Muslera had saved from Rafael Van Der Vaart, but Uruguay’s respite was brief. Wesley Sneijder shot from the edge of the penalty area, through the legs of Robin Van Persie and into the bottom corner of the net. Van Persie let the ball through his legs, but he was definitely in the sightline of the goalkeeper and was nominally offside. With no discernable sense of irony, the Uruguayans argue their case, but the goal stands.
Three minutes later, the Dutch scored again, removing any significant doubt – or so we thought – from the result. Dirk Kuyt crossed into the six yard area and Arjen Robben angled a downward header in off the post. These two goals knocked the stuffing out of Uruguay, and it felt for much of the closing stages of the match as if the Netherlands would further extend their lead. With five minutes to play, Robben was played in on goal but he got himself in a pickle trying to get the ball onto his considerably favoured left foot and the ball bobbled comfortably back to Muslera. This World Cup being this World Cup, though, there was still time for a sting in to the tale. A minute and a half into stoppage time, a smartly worked free-kick rolled the ball into the path of Pereira, who curled his shot wide of Stekelenberg and into the corner of the net. Suddenly, Uruguay were jolted back to life, but they had left it too late this time. They throw as much as they could into the remaining three minutes of stoppage time, but the Netherlands held out and booked their place in the final.
Uruguay’s most unexpected World Cup journey comes to an end in a blaze of “what if”s. What might have happened if Luis Suarez had headed the ball off the line against Ghana on Friday night and been available to play. What might have happened if the second goal had been disallowed? What might have happened if they had gone for it in the manner of the last three minutes for the eighteen minutes after the Dutch goal? The Suarez incident has definitely tainted a lot of the goodwill that might have been held in their favour otherwise, but the significance of a country of three million people getting to the semi-finals of the World Cup should not be lost on those that didn’t achieve what they did.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, have the opportunity to break free of the shadow of the great Dutch team of the 1970s. It has long felt unfair that a team representing a nation of sixteen million people should have to labour under expectations that were forged by a single generation of players. Bert Van Marwijk’s pre-tournament statement that total football is a thing of the past may have been a shot in the heart for the game’s romantics, but he has been utterly vindicated by their place in the final of the tournament, and his team has been considerably more entertaining to watch than some have suggested. Germany and Spain, watching this match ahead of their match tomorrow night, may have watched this with interest and considered that they have little to fear from the Dutch in the final. It would seem foolish, however, to write this team off before Sunday’s match. The Netherlands are in the World Cup final in Sunday entirely on merit – as the remaining schedule suggests, they are one of the best two or three teams left in the tournament.