RIO DE JANEIRO -- It rose in the wake of Louis van Gaal's stroke of substitution genius and Tim Krul's feat of mental strength as inevitably as the tides, that go-to epithet of sporting derision: antics. No less a football observer than Henry Winter -- and trust me, I want no beef with you, dear sir -- so cast his judgment: "Krul good saves, poor antics," Winter declared on Twitter, as though each were a discrete half of the whole, as though we could have had one without the other.
This is insane.
Full disclosure: I was a mostly mediocre goalkeeper throughout my playing years and thus consider myself a lifetime member of the noblest union in sports. I would probably defend Krul had he pulled out a knife. Let's not forget that this is the World Cup we're talking about. He was put in a situation that would have excused far more outlandish behavior. We're lucky Krul didn't strip naked and cartwheel across the goal.
Instead, he measured his breathing, subdued the crackling of each nerve in his towering frame and ignored the fact that every advantage in the world was weighted against him except for his single opening to success: the blunt-force psychological trauma of pressure.
As a function of pure physics, penalties are a one-sided joke. A regulation football net is 24 feet wide and eight feet high. I'm no mathematician, but I believe that makes for 192 square feet of surface area. That is roughly the size of a shipping container. The shooter's only task is to put the ball somewhere the keeper is not, the equivalent of asking a golfer to make a 10-foot putt into a manhole.
The truth is, a well-placed penalty is unstoppable. If the shooter does his job, the keeper simply can't do his. Lost somewhat in the fascinating Van Gaal and Krul dynamic was the precision of each of the clinical Dutch takes. Even a keeper as good as Keylor Navas, arguably the best shot-stopper in the tournament, didn't stand a chance. Put the ball just inside the post, not even all that sharply, and you'll score every time.
But a funny thing happens even to the world's best football players when they walk up to that spot. They are given the terrible opportunity to think. What would normally come to them by some combination of muscle memory and instinct during the regular course of play now becomes something else. The vision of that ball, waiting at their feet, shining under all those lights, pushes the shooter out of the automatic comfort of his subconscious and into the deathtrap that is his conscious mind.
To go back to golf for a moment, taking a World Cup penalty is more like hitting a wedge to the infamous island green at TPC Sawgrass. That is a shot that every touring pro should be able to make every time. The island is not small. It is one of the biggest greens in tournament play in America. It could make a nice home for somebody. And it's only a little over 100 yards from the tee. But all that water cracks open the door to self-doubt, and the brain leads the body, which leads the ball. Kerplunk.
On Saturday night, Krul was the water. He was the door to self-doubt. He addressed the Costa Rican shooters -- well within the written rules of the game, and spare me your unwritten ones -- and told them, he said after, that he knew what they were going to do. I hope he also said something like, "Your entire nation is watching you and they want this so badly. Costa Rica in the World Cup semifinal? Can you imagine? Wow. Anyway, good luck. And yeah, like I said, I know you're going left."
It recalled maybe the greatest sequence of World Cup chess moves in history. During the 2006 quarterfinal between Germany and Argentina, keeper Jens Lehmann had a note tucked into his sock listing the tendencies of the likely shooters. He made quite a show of looking at that crumpled sheet before each take. Lehmann, already standing in the goal, dug into his sock, consulted his little scratchpad of hotel stationery and tucked it back behind his shin guard. Then he gave a little nod, not entirely to himself. Like Krul, he stopped two of the penalties, including what would prove the last one, taken by poor Esteban Cambiasso. His name wasn't even on the list, but Lehmann had conspicuously studied his note anyway, and suddenly 192 square feet looked the size of that piece of paper.
That's what Krul did on Saturday night: He used the Costa Ricans and their own consciousness to make the goal seem smaller. In that moment, he was not an example of poor sportsmanship. He was an example of superior gamesmanship. Saying he shouldn't have talked to the Costa Ricans would be like banning chat from a poker table. It's part of the game because it's part of us. Humans aren't just physical machines. We are emotional and spiritual and psychological beings too. We don't just win or lose with our hands and feet. We win or lose with our hearts and minds.
Tim Krul won with his heart and with his mind. He was right five out of five times. That doesn't read like antics to me. That looks like perfection.