SEMIFINAL: Netherlands 3-2 Uruguay
Not with a whimper, but with one bigass KABOOM. That’s how Uruguay went out. After falling behind 3-1 and pulling Diego Forlan with a few minutes to go, everyone on all sides seemed content to accept the outcome. Then Holland fell asleep on defense and Maxi Pereira banged home a goal a minute into extra time. Suddenly, an all-out three-minute assault on the Dutch penalty box was underway. Multiple times the ball fell to the feet of Uruguayan players, but none of them really managed to pull the trigger; in the end, it was a frenzied finish that changed nothing and left the Dutch 3-2 winners.
The first half didn’t have much in the way of classic build-up attacking play, but it did feature two wicked long-range strikes. The first, from Holland’s van Bronckhorst, came from, what, 35 or 40 yards out? He bombed one in from the left, and it caught the top right post and bounced in. Tennis serves couldn’t have gone much faster. Then, the answer came in the form of Diego Forlan, who bent a swirler past van Stekelenburg from about 25 yards. the Dutch keeper probably could’ve made a better play on the ball, but in his defense, how many times have we seen the Jabulani actually curl like that this tourney?
At 1-1, I felt like Uruguay’s battle-tested mental fortitude might win out, and both teams traded stretches of possession to open the second half. But everything changed with (what else?) a controversial goal in the 70th. Sneijder popped a low ball that bounced off two Uruguayan defenders before deflecting off van Persie’s foot and going in. van P was way offside when the ball was kicked, but no call was forthcoming, and the Dutch had their lead back. Three minutes later, Dirk Kuyt crossed a ball to Arjen Robben. He sent a sharp header into goal and the 3-1 lead that seemed safe had been built.
Once again the Dutch win a game without managing to look dominant or even consistently scary. They play coherently for small stretches but also can be put back on their heels easier than most World Cup finalists I can recall. One thing they usually do well is position themselves on the pitch — Robben and Kuyt are always switching places on the wings, and Sneijder finds space as well as any midfielder in the world. Can spacing and placement combine with occasionally clutch finishing to win you a World Cup? I guess we’ll find out this weekend.
Goodbye to Uruguay, who provided us with one of the game’s great performers in Diego Forlan. Maybe the Suarez handball and subsequent gloating turned off a lot of observers, but I found them a gritty, resilient bunch of gamers. Along with the handball, Suarez gave us that incredible game-winner against South Korea. Forlan provided the finest free kicks in the tourney. Maxi Pereira was a tackle machine, and Fernando Muslera was outstanding in the penalty shootout against Ghana.
A European team will now win a non-European World Cup for the first time. Who will battle Holland for the chance?