Viewers with no dog in the fight between the Netherlands and Costa Rica might have asked themselves: Do we pull for the big, bad favorite that ascribes to a delightful brand of soccer or root for the heartwarming Cinderella whose ultra-defensive approach is a style only a doctoral student of soccer could visually withstand for two hours?
The relentless beauty beat the admirable beast on a penalty kick shootout-with-a-twist. The
The Ticos, lovable longshots who took a game plan unpleasant to the typical fan's eye and carried it out to near-perfection, head home with much gratitude and a bit of good riddance.
In fairness, they had no other option. The Costa Ricans had to congregate on their goalkeeper's side, same as in the four preceding matches. They had decided to live with the yawning gaps between shots. (Against the Dutch, there were six in 120-plus minutes, half on goal.) They would continue to bait the opposition into committing offside. (Eleven times by the Netherlands.) They would cede ball possession by a two-to-one margin. (Again.)
If two hours of boredom broken up by bursts of excitement delivered them to a shootout, so be it. They would take their chances with keeper Keylor Navas, one of maybe three top-drawer players on their team.
The Dutch took a chance, too. An enormous one. Replacing keepers for a shootout is rare, but Tim Krul was judged better suited than Jasper Cillessen, who was hardly exhausted after watching most of the action from the opposite end of the field.
The keeper who came in cold outdid the one who played all tournament in a zone. Krul rejected two of five Costa Rica kicks and guessed correctly on a third that just evaded him. Navas, floored twice by collisions late in the match, lost his mojo and had an oh-fer in the shootout that ended with the Dutch ahead, 4-3, and not needing their fifth attempt.
They began this match with a dozen goals at the World Cup and, after a desultory start with too much pitty-pat passing, could have piled up a half-dozen more.
Arjen Robben, whose exaggerated dives are the only knock against him, played with boundless energy. His face-plants against Costa Rica seemed legit, caused by an epidemic of tripping.
The Robben and Robin show was too much Arjen and not enough of his partner. But Robin van Persie is still half of the Cup's most potent pair of scorers.
Wesley Sneijder's passes seem guided by remote control. His shots, also, with two of them scraping paint off the post above Navas' reach.
Students of the game at any level, from pre-K to post-graduate, should find intrigue in the matchup between the most offensively robust team of the 32 that started in Brazil and the Messi-anic Argentines, who have taken a sharp turn toward defense. Their 1-0 win was forged less by attacking than keeping Belgium at bay.