No team feels the pinch of a World Cup elimination like the Netherlands.
The Dutch have been to three finals and fallen short each time. Every new generation has brought with it a star — Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, Arjen Robben... A talisman touted as the chosen one to steer the nation home. None could.
In Qatar, Louis Van Gaal’s side had no generational talent, but a team that knew how to win. Enjoying a rich vein of form, it arrived in Qatar — unbeaten in 15 games. No one quite termed it as a contender, but when thought upon, any manager would want to avoid a confrontation with the Dutch. Their road till the Round of 16 had been smooth. Then came Messi’s Argentina in the quarterfinals - the player, the nation that the world wanted to win. And the Netherlands again faced the grim prospect of a World Cup exit.
Till the final quarter of the match, Argentina’s passage to the last four seemed settled, devoid of hiccups, interruptions or delays. The South Americans led 2-0 until Wout Weghorst was brought in with 12 minutes of regulation time remaining. The six-foot-six forward scored first in the 83rd minute with a sharp header. Oranje got a sniff, and they were not letting the match go. Not without a fight, at least.
For its persistence and relentless attack, the Netherlands was rewarded with a free kick in the 11th minute of stoppage time. That was the last chance, and the team’s response to the situation was mind-boggling. It decided to initiate a set-piece routine. Even with a hundred attempts in practice, a free-kick set-piece drill has every chance of going wrong in a match. For the Dutch, at the Lusail Stadium, it did not.
Teun Koopmeiners feigned a shot to slip a pass to Weghorst in the penalty area. The Argentina defence was caught napping. The striker faced the goal with defensive bodies to his left and right but only the keeper in front. Enzo Fernandez made a late tackle, but the ball had already beaten keeper Emiliano Martinez.
With creativity and audacity, the Dutch had forced extra-time. They eventually lost in the shootout, but the guile to convert the free kick provided one of the most thrilling moments of the World Cup.
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