Hauling himself up one last time in the final minute of the second period of extra-time, Dirk Kuyt motored down the right flank. Like always, he was just ahead of Stefan de Vrij and just behind Arjen Robben. The Fenerbahce striker, once used to being the lone-man ahead for Holland, was now reduced to being the love-handle of a bloated Dutch belly. But he didn’t complain of course, playing his role in the Oranje engine-room to one-touch perfection.
All evening long, Kuyt received balls from the chiselled backline and all evening long, he obediently played the role of Robben’s personal assistant — waiting on the ball until the Bayern Munich man settled into a pocket of space and then channeling it tamely ahead on cue. Then Kuyt would sit back like one of the 51,000 spectators at the Arena Fonte Nova and watch Robben electrify the Costa Ricans with his presence — dribbling and dazzling at the same time with his rare, liquid movements.
Robben tickled everyone and everything with his gifts, except of course the back of goalie Keylor Navas’s net. The central American side had studied him, surrounding him and his aura in herds. All night, Robben resembled a caged hummingbird, charming in his beautiful buzz but mighty frustrated in his surroundings. Yet, he demanded attention, especially that of Kuyt’s, his personal worm-feeder.
In the 119th minute, however, and for the first time in the match, Kuyt refused to bow to his master’s needs. Breaking his game-long instruction of ‘find ball find Arjen’, Kuyt found a central midfielder in Georginio Wijnaldum instead. Also a feeder like Kuyt, Wijnaldum took two paces ahead and found his master, Wesley Sneijder, on the left — just outside a crowded Costa Rican box. Sneijder dummied to his left, stepped over to his right and triggered the Brazuca down the centre. Thud!
For the third time in this match, his attempt had crashed against the crossbar, making Sneijder sigh, captain Robin van Persie glower and Robben growl, in that order. Van Persie, who had the best chance in the match to put Costa Rica out of its misery in the 90th minute (then, his finish had found last defender Yeltsin Tejeda’s unaware body and looped up to kiss the top-right), believed that he was in a better position in the middle to find that elusive goal this time around.
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Such was Holland’s match. With all their abundant talent, they had strung together more chances (18 shots on target, many against the post) and passes (Opta Joe, the online tracker, stopped keeping count after the 38th minute when they had strung together 271 moves) than they did in any of their matches in this campaign before. Yet, a tight-knit Costa Rica held on. This made the finalists from South Africa livid.
But none were more livid than Robben, who addressed Kuyt with a very public dressing down, telling him in no uncertain terms that the ball goes only where he chooses to. Another Dutchman would utter those very words just a minute later after the final whistle. But Holland’s substitute goalie Tim Krul would say those words not to a teammate, but to every member of the opposition.
In the 120th minute, just before the stroke of penalties, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal experienced what is now believed to be a moment of inspiration. With his final substitution, he replaced Jasper Cillessen — a man who had been standing in goal for the last two hours and each of the 480 minutes of Holland’s campaign in Brazil so far — and brought on Krul, a man who hadn’t played competitive football in two months.
No penalty specialist
Penalty specialist? Not really. The Newscastle goalkeeper in fact has a woeful shot-stopping record, saving just two out of his last 20 kicks from the spot. But there he was, with both the weight of Holland’s expectations and the tug of history on his square shoulders. Never in the past had Holland won a World Cup match that had proceeded to extra-time, losing thrice in the added period and once in penalties (to Brazil in France ‘98).
And not once in the last nine World Cup matches had the team going second won the penalty shootouts. Today, Holland were going second, immediately after the last team to win a World Cup penalty shootout — Costa Rica. Just like they did against Greece in the quarterfinals, Costa Rica’s number five, Celso Borges, went first. But as he approached the spot, Krul was already there.
“I know which way you’re going to kick. So watch out, you’re going to miss,” Krul is said to have told Borges (words he revealed to the press after the match) and four other penalty takers. Just as he predicted, Krul guessed the right direction in all his five leaps. While Borges didn’t miss, captain Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana did. Holland won the shoot-outs 4-3.
The core of Holland’s dynamic engine came together perfectly during the shoot-outs as each of van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt (in that order) scored past a dangerous Navas during the shoot-outs. But the undeniable hero was an so far unused spare part. “I psyched them out,” Krul said after the game. “I got into their minds by telling them that I had studied them. It was to get them nervous. Maybe it did.” Maybe.