Dutch wonder what might have been
RIO DE JANEIRO -- By the time you read this, Louis van Gaal will have said goodbye to his players and staff in a hotel on the outskirts of Rotterdam. The 62-year-old won't have to hand out any presents because the Dutch team brought their own souvenirs back from Brazil: a box full of shiny bronze medals.
A handful of players tweeted photos of themselves with their medals after the final whistle in Brasilia. "Proud of the team," wrote Wesley Sneijder. The 3-0 win over Brazil in the third-place playoff, described as "handsome" by tabloid Trouw, couldn't quite get the Oranje over the disappointment of missing out on the final, but it made the journey back a little sweeter.
Johan Cruyff had worried about the team not getting out of what looked a tough group, while many experts predicted neighbour Belgium would go further. The Dutch won over the doubters and left Brazil as the third best team in the world.
"They have brought joy to the whole country," wrote De Volkskrant. But the paper also gave voice to a hint of regret that might pervade once the pride wears off.
In the semifinal against Argentina, a timid, defensive Netherlands crashed out without a single meaningful shot on target. "Van Gaal believed in reactive football driven by fear until the end," lamented De Volkskrant. "The spark of genius had gone. What the Oranje needed in the final stages of the game was a Cruyff-like moment of courage, a dash of the Dutch school to confuse the Argentinians. But nothing happened."
Van Gaal's decision to field an unfit Nigel de Jong and take off captain Robin van Persie -- a move that ultimately resulted in Ron Vlaar taking the first penalty -- will be chewed over for a few more weeks. But the future Manchester United coach will dismiss those critics the way he dismisses any questions he doesn't like -- by denying that it's an acceptable question in the first place.
Not only has he overcome his personal trauma of not qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in his first spell in charge as Bondscoach, but he has also led his team further than anybody would have hoped for five weeks ago. He will be the coach that got one of the less talented Oranje outfits all the way to third place, not the sudden proponent of catenaccio whose grand plan didn't work in the Sao Paulo semifinal.
Arjen Robben was the star of the show, but Van Gaal was careful to win just as many plaudits. The blame for the Argentina defeat -- no, it wasn't a defeat; Netherlands were "unbeaten," he said before boarding the place -- lay with two unnamed players who had refused to take the first penalty. Van Gaal brought it up after the Argentina game then angrily refused to identify the players in a subsequent news conference. He made out that the reporter was being disrespectful in probing further: "It's only important for the media, I will never betray the trust of my players." Classic Van Gaal. At times, his interactions with the international media have felt like one long, slightly tortuous prelude to his reign at Old Trafford.
What else will remain from the Netherlands' campaign? Robben, admired (for his high-tempo runs) and disliked (for his tendency to go down at the faintest of contact) in equal measure, could win the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament unless any of four Germans (Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Muller) or three Argentines (Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano) do something special in the final. Unlike in the last two tournaments, accredited journalists at the Maracana won't be asked vote for the award at halftime -- that's how Uruguay's Diego Forlan ended up as the unlikely winner in South Africa -- but FIFA's technical committee will select its favourite instead. Robben must hope that the vote will be split among the seven finalists.
Robin van Persie, meanwhile, celebrated his converted penalty in the third minute as if he had just won the World Cup. "That was meant for people who always talk a lot," the striker said. "Pierre van Hooijdonk for example. I can take criticism, but he sows unrest without facts. He should play golf instead."
Van Persie and Van Hooijdonk are former teammates at Feyenoord, and they have never seen eye to eye. Van Hooijdonk had written about tensions in the Dutch camp and accused Van Persie of lacking commitment and feeling overshadowed by Robben. Gazzetta dello Sport, too, had reported on the Dutch captain being distant from the rest of the squad and alleged that senior players had pleaded with Van Gaal to play Klaas-Jan Huntelaar instead of Van Persie against Argentina. Van Gaal has denied it.
Team spirit wasn't perhaps as good as widely advertised, but it didn't matter as long as the team kept winning. The Dutch were pushed to the limit -- "we are squeezed out like a lemon, but in a good way," said Van Persie -- and by the end of the tournament, they had nothing left to give. You can't really ask more of a team, which is why this side will be remembered fondly in years to come.