Oranje can only be proud despite World Cup defeat

It was never expected to come to this.

The “weak”, “poor” and “shocking” Netherlands squad were supposed to scrape by the group stages, if they were lucky, surely in second place, where they would be eliminated in the next round by hosts and favourites Brazil.

Yet here they were, set to fight it out with one of the pre-tournament favourites over a penalty shootout for a place in the final.

After keeping Lionel Messi quiet all night and having pulled off some tactical masterstrokes throughout the competition, it seemed Louis van Gaal and his side had presented themselves a glorious opportunity of reaching a second consecutive World Cup final.

However, after Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder’s missed penalties, Maxi Rodriguez slammed home the winning spot-kick to take Argentina into the ultimate clash with Germany, while Oranje’s World Cup dream came to an end.

It was a devastating end to a thrilling, surprising and, at times, electrifying campaign for the Dutch. They did it in style, routing the reigning world and European champions Spain 5-1 in their opener, smashing two past an impressive Chile, leaving it late to keep their hopes alive against Mexico and reaching the last four by the way of a gutsy goalkeeper change before a penalty shootout against Costa Rica.

While expectations were minimal before the tournament began, they grew as it wore on, reaching the point where it seemed they had a better chance of reaching the final than they did of going out to Alejandro Sabella’s men.

After all, Van Gaal is a tactical genius, his South American counterpart, on the other hand, is not. Sabella, though, had done enough. Messi and Arjen Robben, the stars of their respective teams, were kept out of the game. Although the latter came agonisingly close to ending the game in extra-time, but for the perfectly timed tackle by Javier Mascherano, whose involvement at that stage after a seemingly severe blow to the head will see the Argentina coach come under much criticism in the wake of the game.

Van Gaal had introduced Tim Krul against Costa Rica solely for the penalty shootout, despite Jasper Cillessen making no errors. It worked then and perhaps it would have worked against Argentina, but there was no way of knowing – Van Gaal had made all three tactical changes by the time the final whistle was blown.

Losing out on reaching the final seems like a golden opportunity missed and when narrowed down to that single game, perhaps it is. However, overall, the boys in orange can feel nothing but pride in their campaign.

The injury to Kevin Strootman back in March forced Van Gaal to completely change the team’s style and formation just weeks ahead of the tournament. The new 5-3-2 system with inexperienced Cillessen in goal, a defence lead by Vlaar and a midfield marshalled by the unappreciated Nigel de Jong, the Netherlands were supposed to struggle against Spain and Chile as well as even Australia.

They didn’t though.

They took the rest of the world as well as themselves by surprise.

Van Gaal’s tactical set-up as well as his changes during the game were magnificent. The 5-3-2 covered for the lack of control in the midfield, allowing Robben and Van Persie to roam free up front, devastating almost every defence they came across.

Cillessen was solid in goal throughout the tournament. The 25-year-old was left to face the penalties despite the coach’s and the team’s lack of confidence in him in them. He might have seen all four go past him, but it can’t take away from his excellent performances in the tournament. From the second tier of Dutch football to a World Cup semi-final in less than a year, it has been a crazy journey for the Ajax goalkeeper. Tim Krul had an unbelievable participation. Having played just one minute of game time, he served his purpose in mentally destroying Costa Rica and knocking them out with two saves in the penalty shootout. He is a hero, despite his miniscule participation.

Meanwhile, Vlaar was a rock at the back throughout. The Aston Villa defender hardly put a foot wrong and against Argentina he was almost invincible. Every ball was his, every tackle was excellent, calm and composed on the ball – even his distribution was sound. Stefan de Vrij, an unknown youngster to the rest of the world, proved through his tackling ability and leadership that he is ready to move on from Feyenoord and try his hand at a much higher level. Daley Blind, as a left wing-back and central defender, neither of which are his best position, showed why he is so greatly admired by the Ajax supporters, even if they hated him two years ago. The 24-year-old’s pass to Van Persie for the magnificent equaliser against Spain will go down in history as part of an iconic goal. Bruno Martins Indi may not have been excellent throughout the tournament, but his passion and drive made him a great personality to have in the team.

Kuyt is a hero once again. The former striker-turned-winger is now a fully accomplished right wing-back and left wing-back. His work ethic is famous, but it seemed much more impressive and remarkable in this tournament, especially as he had been absolutely incredible in each game.

De Jong set the record straight which had been skewed by his performance in the 2010 final. His positioning, anticipation, acceleration in short spaces, tackling and passing made him an absolutely crucial part of the game. Against Spain he was magnificent, against Australia he was flawless and against Chile he was superb, while he did remarkably well to keep Messi out of Wednesday’s game. Georginio Wijnaldum replaced the unimpressive Jonathan de Guzman after just two games and added a great deal of energy and movement to the midfield. Sneijder started the tournament poorly, but grew into making a respectable contribution in the knockout rounds, despite his missed penalty against Argentina.

Like De Jong, Robben also went a long way to restoring his profile. While the accusations of him being a diver will never go away and are in most cases justified, they should not be brought into mind in discussion of this tournament. The 30-year-old defied logic at times. At his age, he was hitting ridiculous speeds after 90 minutes, always ready to make the difference for his team, always, like four years ago, prepared to carry the burden and expectation of an entire nation at the World Cup. He is, most definitely, one of the most decisive players in world football at the moment and lead them off the field as much as he did off of it.

Van Persie, the real leader and captain of the team, had a magnificent opening to the campaign. His header against Spain will be remembered by the world for years to come, his partnership with Robben was devastating and he was crucial. While he was poor in the knockout rounds of the tournament, he was prepared to give his all from the first minute to the last of every game, despite missing golden, crucial opportunities and straying offside. For such mental strength and leadership, he should be commended, not criticised.

Young winger Memphis Depay was one of the highlights of the tournament. His speed, width and ability to completely change a game for Netherlands saw them beat Australia, kill off Chile and helped them turn it around in the last-16 meeting with Mexico. His attitude is refreshing and he took full advantage of the learning opportunity and magnificent experience afforded to him. This is a player who can reach and perhaps surpass Robben.

Despite being a benchwarmer, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was available to make the difference when he needed to. He turned the Mexico game around, came on to boost the attack against Costa Rica and was prepared, in vain, to make the difference against Argentina too. Two years ago he was a massive disruption and was almost removed from the team hotel at Euro 2012 because he wasn’t starting. The turnaround from hindrance to helper made things easier for Van Gaal, Van Persie and the rest of the team.

Most of the credit, though, has to fall to Van Gaal. The magnificent coach proved time and again throughout the tournament why he is seen as one of the best coaches in the world and why Manchester United saw him as the one to bring them back to the big-time. His tactics were perfect, his substitutions were inspired and his belief in his team was exemplary. Van Gaal instilled a magnificent unity into the Oranje dressing room. All 23 players were in it together, fighting for each other and they all believed in each other. That kind of camaraderie is something we’ve never seen in the Dutch before and it was absolutely crucial in seeing them reach the last four.

As Maxi’s penalty hit the back of the net despite Cillessen getting a hand to it, every orange heart in the world sank. The pictures showed Cillessen sitting isolated on the ground, Blind in tears being consoled by his team-mates and Huntelaar standing devastated against a backdrop of Argentine jubilation. They were wrecked, heartbroken and in mourning. As the dust settles, though, they should feel nothing but pure pride and honour. They shocked, surprised, entertained and thrilled us all.

They may not have delivered the World Cup trophy, but they have brought happiness to every Netherlands fan.

Dank u wel, Louis, Patrick, Danny, Jasper, Tim, Michel, Ron, Stefan, Bruno, Daley, Daryl, Paul, Joel, Terence, Nigel, Jonathan, Welsey, Jordy, Leroy, Georginio, Memphis, Arjen, Robin, Dirk, Klaas-Jan, Jeremain.

You are all heroes in our eyes.

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