Dutch future after World Cup exit
The Netherlands have never finished third in a World Cup, but the chance to win the "small" final on Saturday against a traumatised Brazil team offered precious little consolation to Arjen Robben. "I could not care less about that game right now," the 30-year-old forward said after the penalty shootout in Sao Paulo. "In my opinion, they should abolish it all together. The World Cup is about one thing only: the Cup."
Defender Ron Vlaar (Aston Villa), who'd missed the first spot kick, was inconsolable too. "In the end, you stand here with empty hands," the 29-year-old lamented.
Seen in such harsh light, the trip to Brazil was always likely to end in disappointment for the Oranje.
"Nobody expected us to make it to the final [at the start of the tournament]," manager Louis van Gaal said after the game, with some justification. The Elftal had brought the "Golden Triangle" of Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie with them, but not much more by way of creativity or cutting edge. Ultimately, it wasn't enough.
After the thrilling start against Spain and Australia, they were a little less convincing with every game and slowly fizzled out. The Netherlands couldn't find a way past Costa Rica in 120 minutes, nor could they against a cautious, hesitant Argentina. Van Gaal's defensive strategy recognised the lack of Dutch firepower; the team was set up to not concede. That tactic had served the team well in Brazil, and some of their counterattacking had been nothing short of breathtaking. But when Argentina didn't afford them the space to counterattack, there was nothing on which they could fall back -- not on Wednesday, in any case.
"We only had small chances," Robben said.
He took over the armband from Van Persie, who was substituted six minutes into extra time after another jaded performance. The Manchester United striker was possibly affected by a stomach bug. It was hard to tell. There were so few Dutch forays into the final third that Klaas Jan Huntelaar, van Persie's replacement, looked just as anonymous.
Robben was hugely disappointed, as you would expect. He came painfully close to winning the Dutch their first World Cup trophy in the 2010 final, and here they were within a couple of misplaced spot kicks of getting another shot. Will he get another opportunity to crown his career? It's tough to imagine him running at defenders in Russia four years from now, at age 34.
It only took him a few seconds in the postmatch interview with Dutch television to put things into proper perspective. Robben knew this team had lived on borrowed time, and they had come as far as possible with the talent at their disposal.
"We have given everything, everything, everything together," he said. "I'm so incredibly proud of this team."
In the past, there would have been recriminations after such a meek exit. The defence would have blamed the star-studded attack, and vice versa, and half the team would have blamed the Dutch coach for favouring the other half of the team. This, by contrast, remained a united Netherlands until the end. They played with the togetherness of an underdog and the solidarity of men who knew they were up against it. Every time Van Gaal lined them up in a 3-5-2 system that often became a resolutely reactive 5-3-2 during the game, he reinforced the message that this team were not cut out to dominate the ball or the space.
During his time at Bayern, the 62-year-old once came into the dressing room after a Champions League game while proudly waving UEFA's results sheet through the air. "FC Bayern won! Ajax won! Barcelona won! [These are] all Van Gaal teams!" This Netherlands were never a true a Van Gaal team, by contrast, and they never pretended to be either. Their style went against everything the Dutch school stood for. But a few old naysayers apart, everyone in Brazil and back home was fine with taking that path. There simply was no viable alternative, short of "having a go," England-style, with potentially fatal consequences early on in the competition.
The Elftal will receive a heroes' welcome upon their return to Amsterdam, regardless of the result in the irrelevant third-place playoff in Brasilia. Most supporters have an instinctive understanding of their team's capabilities and limitations; third or fourth place is a bigger achievement than anybody could have anticipated four weeks ago.
For the five 30-year-olds -- Van Persie, Robben, Sneijder, Huntelaar and Nigel de Jong -- it was probably the last shot at the trophy. Van Gaal too is unlikely to come back to the Netherlands job a third time, unless both his time at Manchester United and that of his successor, Guus Hiddink, on the Dutch bench are cut dramatically short.
Hiddink, 67, has been full of praise for the work of his predecessor. "The team that this technical staff will deliver after the World Cup feels like a gift," he told Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad before the semifinal with Argentina. "These players have not only won much more value for their clubs but also much more value for themselves. They have learned in some tough matches to work out solutions and act on them."
The experience will undoubtedly help them at Euro 2016. But the Netherlands will need more for Hiddink to deliver a trophy at his third tournament in charge of the national team (he was coach at Euro '96 and the 1998 World Cup) -- namely, more quality.
Argentina advance to the World Cup final
- Marcotti: Romero the keeper of the faith
- Jones: Van Gaal's magic touch deserts him
- Macintosh: Mascherano the inspiration
- Brewin: Romero is the shootout hero
- Delaney: Messi contained but Albiceleste prevail
- McIntyre: Argentina vs. Netherlands grades
- Tactics Board: Two-way containment
- Watch the entire penalty shootout (U.S. only)
The Dutch have promising young-ish players such as Memphis Depay (20), Daley Blind (24) and Jordy Clasie (23), but no outstanding attacking prospect to put any pressure on the big three's starting positions in France in two years' time. Hiddink will have to usher in a new generation that doesn't appear as blessed with talent -- in terms of numbers and quality -- as his '96 and '98 teams.
Hiddink will be relieved there will be no expectation of beautiful football from him. But whether his "results football" will be as effective as Van Gaal's remains to be seen.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.