SAO PAULO -- Only four days ago, Louis van Gaal was a genius. He had engineered a precision shootout victory over Costa Rica, each of his chosen men scoring and his last-minute keeper substitution -- trading Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul -- working out to dreamlike perfection. In Wednesday night's shootout against Argentina, the Dutch looked far less masterful; so, too, their manager. Cillessen didn't make a save, and only two of Van Gaal's four shooters found the goal. It was like watching a potion wear off.
The harder truth is that Van Gaal had done hidden damage to his team. He overlooked the curse that accompanies all granted wishes. "It just goes to show," he said. A triumph that should have given the Dutch all the confidence in the world instead had broken them, starting and ending with poor Cillessen.
Cillessen reacted angrily when Van Gaal pulled him in those fateful dying seconds against Costa Rica. He helped carry his team that far, shutting out Los Ticos for 120 minutes, but now he was very publicly being told he was no longer good enough. In came Krul to play his brilliant mind games, guessing correctly on all five Costa Rican penalties and stopping two of them. Krul, not Cillessen, was the night's ecstatic hero. He was the man embraced by his teammates. He was the reason the Dutch were through.
This time, Krul and his happy history could not be repeated. A string of small failures -- a kind of cascade of bad fortune -- conspired to leave him on the bench. Bruno Martins Indi earned a yellow card just before halftime, so Van Gaal felt it was a risk to leave him in. There went one substitution. Then Nigel de Jong, a surprise starter following a groin injury, looked on the verge of breaking down. There went two. And then Robin van Persie had stumbled in extra time, slowed and close to spent. His collapse burned up Van Gaal's third and final move. "If I'd had the opportunity to substitute Jasper, I would have done it," Van Gaal said, but he no longer did. The man in whom he had shown so little faith was now his only hope.
Worse, the opposite goalkeeper was an emboldened one. Sergio Romero had not looked especially strong during the match -- punching balls he could have caught, looking tentative on his line rather than charging out for corners and crosses -- but he still had the belief of his manager, Alejandro Sabella, and that had made his heart as big as Cillessen's had been broken. Coming off the worst professional season of his career, Romero spoke after about how much Sabella's support had meant to him. Unlike Cillessen, he felt as though he was where he was wanted. He felt as though he was where he was supposed to be.
It was plain to see, the difference in confidence between the two. Romero wore that trust like a cape; Cillessen was dogged by doubt like a shadow. The entire Dutch team was. In a confusing half-admission, Van Gaal said he asked two different players to take the opening shot before he settled on Ron Vlaar, who, to be fair, had played a very strong game. It was unclear whether Van Gaal's first two choices declined his invitation or whether he changed his mind. But somehow he ended up with a central defender nicknamed "Concrete" taking his first shot.
While Vlaar set up the ball, Romero went through a practiced and exacting routine. He touched the post to his right, then he marched across his goal line, stamping it with his right boot like a man driving in stakes; he touched the post to his left, then he walked back across to his right post; finally, he stalked to the center of his goal and dug in. He looked as though he had just finished stringing an invisible barrier across his goal. More important, he looked as though he believed that he had. He stopped Vlaar -- kicking off an almost incalculable series of pressure exchanges between the two lineups -- and later he stopped Wesley Sneijder, as well. Romero was the definition of solid.
Cillessen never seemed sure what to do. He opened the way Krul had, talking to his first opponent, Lionel Messi, of all the players to try to rattle. The referee, Cuneyt Cakir, warned him off, and the crowd whistled in derision. That ended that. Lost, Cillessen did something strange and different each time out, assuming a succession of postures that never felt genuinely his. When Krul had pointed at his eyes and his head, he looked like a man who knew something that no one else did. When Cillessen tried the same trick, he looked like a man who was exposing every last one of his secrets.
Only on the last Argentine penalty did he come close, getting a touch to Maxi Rodriguez's finishing strike. A dejected Cillessen ended up flat on his back, his hands over his eyes. Including his four penalties against the Argentines, he has never stopped a penalty in his professional career; he is now 0-for-20. He is, to be blunt, not good at this very particular aspect of goalkeeping. Van Gaal knew that, which is why he took him out against the Costa Ricans. Unfortunately, that guaranteed that everyone else knew it, too, including the Dutch and the Argentines in equally problematic measures.
Jasper Cillessen knows it most deeply of all, never more than when he stood on the same line Romero had marked like his own personal territory. He was somewhere he did not belong. After Wednesday night, after this World Cup, it might prove the only thing about which he is certain anymore.