Sitting on the bench, worrying that history might be repeated at his team’s expense, Dirk Kuyt, the Dutch reserve forward, had a perfect view of a goal that energized a nation and a tournament with its daring and flair.
The Netherlands were losing at the time, 1-0, the identical score of their loss to Spain at the 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg. But four years and 44 minutes later, Robin van Persie took a step inside the 18-yard box at the glistening new Arena Fonte Nova, and went airborne to redirect a searching 40-yard pass from Daley Blind with stunning agility.
Iker Casillas, the Spanish goalkeeper who had shut out the Dutch over 120 minutes four years before, was coming out at him, and van Persie knew that his best chance to score was not to head the ball down, as players are often taught, but to give it some lift, allowing it to float over the head of a stunned Casillas and into the back of the net.
Just moments before, Spain missed an opportunity to go up by two goals. But with a minute to spare before halftime, van Persie’s gem, the first of two goals by him, gave the Netherlands a jolt that they rode to a shocking 5-1 victory over Spain.
“In his life, he has done amazing things,” Kuyt said of van Persie. “But to score this goal for his country was very special. It was an amazing pass and an even better finish. It’s a great start to the tournament, two goals against the world champion. It is amazing for him and it is amazing for the team. Hopefully, this is the start of a great tournament.”
The four-goal margin of defeat was the largest for a defending champion, and Spain had not conceded five goals since 1963 when they lost to Scotland, 6-2.
Blind-ingly beautiful passes
Diego Costa, the Brazilian-born center forward, started for Spain and heard loud boos and crude chants for his decision to spurn Brazil and play for Spain. He was tripped in the box in the 27th minute, and Spain took a lead when Xabi Alonso converted the penalty.
But then Blind and van Persie linked up for the goal of the tournament so far. Blind also made the long precision pass to Robben in the 53rd minute that gave the Netherlands the lead. He sent a long ball from the left flank to Robben, whose brilliant first touch, and masterful second touch, sent two Spanish defenders, including Gerard Piqué, and Casillas the wrong way, allowing Robben to drill the ball into the back of the net with his thunderous left foot.
“It was an amazing first match,” Kuyt said. “There was never an opening match where the world champion lost, 5-1. It was an incredible performance, but it’s the first match.”