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Brazil's dubious distinction

Five Aside Jul 12, 2014
Read
 Posted by Elko Born
Jun 8, 2014

Arjen Robben and the trauma of 2010

Spain's Iker Casillas saves a shot from the Netherlands' Arjen Robben in the second half of the 2010 World Cup final.
Spain's Iker Casillas saves a shot from the Netherlands' Arjen Robben in the second half of the 2010 World Cup final.

In the Netherlands' opening match of the World Cup in Brazil, the Oranje will face Spain, the team they faced -- and lost to -- in the heated and controversial final of the 2010 World Cup.

For players like Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, who were there four years ago, the meeting with the reigning world champion will doubtlessly give rise to a memory or two. But hopefully for fans of the Oranje, these memories won't cause too much anxiety. "What could have been..." is a phrase muttered by many, but for footballers who have lost the final of a World Cup, it's especially poignant.

All the more so for Arjen Robben. Out of everyone on the pitch that evening, the pacy winger had the most obvious opportunity to score during regular time, when he slipped through the high Spanish defensive line and ran toward Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas for a one-on-one in the 62nd minute of the match.

Face to face with Casillas, Robben waited either too long or not long enough. Eventually settling for what seemed like an attempt to chip the ball, Robben failed to get the ball in the goal. Without making great effort, the Spanish goalkeeper managed to tip the ball out wide with the toe of his right foot. Robben clasped his head with his hands and fell to his knees.

What could have been? Well, the Netherlands could have taken the lead, extended their tactic of tough tackling that bordered on foul play and prevented the match from going into extra time -- when Spain's Andres Iniesta ultimately crushed the Oranje's dream by putting one past Netherlands keeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Had Robben scored, the Netherlands could have won the World Cup.

- Kuper: Robben a soloist in Total Football land

As it's safely tucked away in a cabinet labelled "unbearable truths," Robben's miss is rarely spoken about in his home country. But the memory is there. After the lost finals of 1974 and 1978, the Dutch had once again come insufferably close. Once again, they had collapsed in sight of the finish line.

In the Netherlands, it is sometimes said that such is the curse of the Oranje. In the Dutch footballer's mind, the real effort is in reaching the final. Once there, the excitement among fans and the players themselves reaches a point of satisfaction, and any tension produced by the necessity to put in a good performance is released just enough to grind the drive that brought them so far to a standstill. Unlike teams like the Germans, Italians and Brazilians, it seems as if the Dutch have difficulty putting in that final effort.

Supposedly, the root of this self-defeating complex can be traced back to the 1974 World Cup, when the most iconic Oranje side of all time took the world by storm with Total Football. The Oranje of 1974 lost the final as well, but 40 years on, it doesn't seem to matter much. To this day, Johan Cruyff and his teammates remain some of the most talked about and revered collection of footballers the world has ever seen. In 1974, the Dutch didn't win a cup, but they created a legacy regardless.

It's not likely Robben thought that the final need not be won as he ran toward the Spanish goal in 2010. In reality, it was probably nerves, Casillas' skill or plain old bad luck. But as the Netherlands face Spain once again in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, it's difficult not to expect Robben to be haunted by a whole other type of psychological torment: the excruciating thought of what could have been.