With the inside of his soaked shirt, Martin Demichelis, Argentina’s central defender, wiped off clumps of wet grass and stains of brown water from the surface of the ball.
Then he caressed the clean Brazuca in his palms and placed it carefully at his goalkeeper Segio Romero’s feet. Goalkick.
All that careful planning couldn’t stop Romero from slipping on the drenched Arena Corinthians soil as he thrust the ball skyward. But Dimichelis’s efforts sure did cause one of the most fascinating periods of play in this match.
The squeaky clean ball, mistimed by Romero, descended near Ron Vlaar, Holland’s hulk of a centre-back, who looped the ball to his right and to the scurrying feet of Arjen Robben.
Holland’s number 11, who usually dribbles ahead in squirrel-like movements, took two lurching steps ahead to gallop down his flank, only to cut in centrally with another horse-like leap. Now, Robin van Persie was in sight just ahead of the box, although he was standing in a crowd of defenders.
When the Holland skipper shrugged away from the Argentine defence’s clasp and collected the ball with his raised and arched right foot, the crowd gasped. This was the Denis Bergkamp moment all over again or at least had the makings of it.
Sixteen years ago, when these two teams had met in the quarterfinals of France ‘98, Dutch striker Bergkamp, who had done nothing for 90 minutes, collected a pass quite like van Persie had tonight, with the tip of his genius toes, only to slot in the differentiator and one of the greatest World Cup goals of all time.
Van Persie had done nothing all day too, but his attempt at greatness ricocheted off defender Ezequiel Garay’s shins and caused a great chance at the other end.
On the rebound was Lionel Messi, who had sprung into life with a run to the edge of the Holland box. While still very much in motion, Messi’s radar-like vision noticed obstacles ahead.
So in one smooth flow, the Argentina captain flung the ball over and above a group of Dutch defenders, through whom Gonzalo Higuain slid on his backside and booted the ball into the side-netting.
For a second there, a deceived stadium erupted, hoping rather than believing that the ball had indeed found the back of the net. But there would be no such luck in this match. There hadn’t been any goals for the previous 74 minutes and there wouldn’t be any for the remainder of the game, including the thirty added minutes.
For the first ever time in a World Cup semi-final, a game had ended nil-nil. We should have seen it coming, though, when all of Holland failed to have a single shot on target during regulation time.
The above few passages must have taken you, the reader, a little less than a minute to go through but in real-time and on the Arena Corinthians field, that end-to-end action took far less time to enact.About 20 seconds, at most. For the rest of the match, all 7180 seconds of it, the action moved like the middle overs of a stale one-day international.
This was mainly due to the fact that the two livewires in opposite colours, Robben and Messi, were clamped down by their shadows, Javier Mascherano and a fully-fit Nigel de Jong respectively, right through the course of the game. Everywhere Messi went, the hard-tackling defensive midfielder de Jong followed.
Nothing Robben tried happened without deep scrutiny from Mascherano’s all-scanning eyes. In fact, Robben made all of one successful pass in the first half of the game.
Both coaches, Louis van Gaal and Alejandro Sabella, tried to pep things up in the second with fresh strikers. Tecnico (the word for coach here) Sabella brought on three forwards in Sergio Aguero, Rodrigo Palacio and Maxi Rodriguez in the space of 10 minutes.
Inspired by the opposition’s moves, van Gaal reacted by pulling out his captain van Persie for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – just like he had done when Holland had struggled to find goals against Mexico. Unlike that Mexico game, even Huntelaar couldn’t make the difference. This match was destined for penalties.
No super Sub
Van Persie’s substitution, incidentally, was van Gaal’s third and final move on this grassy chessboard. This time goalie Jasper Cillessen was forced to shoulder the brunt of the penalty shootouts himself.
Against Costa Rica in the quarterfinal, Cillessen didn’t seem too pleased when he was substituted in the final minute of extra-time for Tim Krul, a man with the poorest of shot-stopping records for Newcastle who ended up as the hero of the day after ‘psyching out’ the opposition’s penalty-takers.
So, before the penalties began, the roving spider-cam caught Krul — who had called each shot correctly against Costa Rica and had saved two penalties — trying to give Cillessen a word of advice or two. But Cillessen, perhaps too lidded in his moment, was caught brushing Krul away. Mighty pleased with self, the goalie sauntered towards the goal-post.
He missed all four while his opposite number, Sergio Romero, did a Krul by saving two — Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder’s — kicks from the spot. Cillessen and Holland were out. Romero and Argentina were through to the final.