This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 7 July 2010. The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/function-over-style-a-surprise-from-the-dutch/
The Dutch are not behaving themselves. Just look at their victory over Uruguay. If someone had told you before the World Cup that the Netherlands would enjoy a 3-2 triumph at the semifinal stage, you’d imagine a game replete with skill and thrill.
But that’s not what we got. If this game resembled any kind of art, it was graffiti on a gray wall; the odd, vivid, angry outburst illuminating what would otherwise be gloom. This was typified by Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s opening goal: the ball rolled to him around 40 yards out, not as a result of a typically wondrous sequence of Dutch passing but as a hasty escape from a Uruguayan challenge. Well wide on the left, striding forward as if feeling the need to bring some beauty to what was banal, Bronckhorst crashed an astonishing drive — high, flat, and straight — in off the right-hand post. Rarely this tournament has the Jabulani flown with such integrity.
Van Bronckhorst’s goal was, so the cliché goes, a goal fit to win any game, and for some time, the Dutch behaved as if it had. This is the only thing that can explain the complacent feet of their goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelenburg, who was too slow to shuffle across his area when Diego Forlán struck from distance in the 40th minute. The Netherlands, therefore, went into halftime haunted by familiar moments of capitulation, but to its credit it held unusually firm. Just how unusual was typified by the two goals that the Dutch scored in the second half. The first, a shot from Wesley Sneijder that ricocheted its way inside the far post, was not so much Total Football as Total Pinball; the second, from Arjen Robben, was, of all things, a header.
And that’s the odd thing about this most un-Dutch of World Cup campaigns. No offense to Robben, whose range of attacking gifts is almost without parallel, but the only thing stranger than watching Robben score a header is, well, watching Sneijder score a header. (Which, of course, he had done in the previous round against Brazil.)
So the Dutch are not behaving as expected. Where is the highlight film from Robin van Persie, the elegance of Rafael van der Vaart? While hardworking, they’ve barely scored or raised pulses between them. Their star player – apart from the irrepressible Sneijder, who has helped himself to five goals – has been Dirk Kuyt, which just about says it all. Some footballers are Rolls Royces; Kuyt, purposeful and pragmatic, is a Range Rover.
It’s not as if the Dutch have been alone in being noncomformist. Take Brazil. Though it arrived in South Africa with the fanfare of the favorite, Brazil’s World Cup dreams abruptly turned out to be much vuvu about nothing. Take Germany. It was supposed to mount a cute but doomed assault upon the second round, but though its efficiency has surprised no one, its beauty has won it admiration.
It’s almost as if the Dutch have come this far by capturing that most German of concepts, the zeitgeist. Sensing that this would be a tournament in which the form guide would often be useless, they decided to play in a functional manner that no one would expect of them. They have been so successful doing so that they now find themselves on the brink of a World Cup wonderland. As Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.”