Saturday, 4 June 2011

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In the long-ago summer of 1998, my heart broke. Holland had played beautifully against Brazil in the semifinals in France, arguably better than their opponents—only to be undone by a penalty shootout. Just four years earlier, Brazil had snuffed out Holland’s dreams in the quarterfinals in the U.S.A.

Any wonder I had trouble sleeping last night? The outcome I’d anticipated from today’s game felt gloomily predictable.

Yet in our correspondence yesterday, my crack team of pundit-friends in and from the Netherlands was remarkably composed and confident. “People are really optimistic about Dutch chances against Brazil,” Maarten reported yesterday from Amsterdam. He added that many felt the Dutch would play better against a more attacking team.

“I am not going to be negative,” Karin said. “Holland has a good team and they have been growing over the last games.”

Marit, writing from Zwolle, was also upbeat. “People around me here don’t want to let go yet of the positive ‘Orange feeling’ in the air.”

Turned out they weren’t deluded.

Right now, there is so much I could say about what I’d rate the most exciting game of the 2010 World Cup thus far, I hardly know where to begin.

I should point out some specifics: an early goal from Brazil’s Robinho, that felt like it might’ve spelled Dutch doom ten minutes in, leaving keeper Stekelenburg looking shell-shocked. Organized, intimidating defending that repeatedly deprived Holland of taking action on its best chances.

“I don't like the look of this,” Christian, another Oranje supporter, said via Facebook. “Brazil is comfortably sitting back and counter attacking,”

The Dutch keeper redeemed himself with a glorious save at 30 minutes. “Jezes Stekelenburg! Thank you,” wrote Maarten.

Still, throughout the first half, it unquestionably felt like the game was Brazil’s to win. The consensus among my far-flung crew of Oranje fans was this: They’d better equalize early in the second half, or else…

And—in the strangest way possible—they did. A smart, sneaky cross from Sneijder yielded an own-goal from Brazil’s Felipe Melo. Suddenly, A Seleção were confused and disarmed. And when Oranje scored again off a fantastic corner by a finally fully-fit Arjen Robben, who connected with Dirk Kuyt, who in turn connected with Sneijder, Dutch confidence duly intensified. The Brazilians looked indignant. A downright petulant—and extraordinarily foolish—Felipe Melo fouled Robben minutes later, then stomped on his calf, earning the Brazilian a red card and leaving his squad a man down, the Dutch tantalizingly close to what had seemed an unlikely victory, and this reporter at the very edge of her barstool, practically hyperventilating.

Enough with the specifics. The Dutch beat Brazil. On to the semifinals.

And what I really want to say is this: I love this Dutch team, regardless of its imperfections. Their flaws pale in comparison to their strengths: Sneijder’s deftness and determination. Kuyt’s heralded selflessness. Robben’s brilliance. The promise of young players like Elia and Afellay in earlier matches. The tenacity of Stekelenburg.