Why this Dutch team won't suffer the same cruel fate as its predecessors
Supporting the Dutch in an international tournament is like going on the most horrifying roller coaster of your life.
It's full of anticipation, new heights and an inevitable free fall. As the ride ends, you feel nauseous, exhausted and completely spent. Your ears are ringing, and there's a specific type of numbness that's somehow able to reverberate through your entire body. It informs you that whatever positives were gained through this experience, it was simply not worth the taste of your heart in the back of your throat.
Then, you take two steps away, and the only thing your body can think to do is line up once again for the very same ride.
While fans of almost every single nation feel as though the experience supporting their side is the most traumatic — your tears are no good here, Brazilians — there's some objective evidence behind Dutch claims that they're the most worthy of pity.
This is their tenth World Cup. They've never won.
This, in and of itself, shouldn't elicit compassion. Only eight nations have won a World Cup, and FIFA recognizes 209 national associations. The odds are against everybody, and that's what makes the event so enthralling.
The Dutch World Cup experience is especially miserable because they've come so close, so many times.
They've lost in the final in a third of their trips to the tournament. Four of their nine eliminations have come after 90 minutes, either through extra time or penalties. Before Saturday's quarterfinal victory over Costa Rica on penalties, the Dutch had never won a World Cup match that went to extra time. They've lost twice in finals after 90 minutes, and once in the semifinals on penalties.
Fate is at its cruelest only when a brief glimpse of the greatest possible outcome is given, then taken away so decisively as to render one incapable of imagining anything other than what could have been.
The Dutch have gone through this on three different occasions.
For all of the talk in the lead up to this tournament of coach Louis van Gaal doing away with the 4-3-3 that had been such a staple of sides from the Netherlands since totaalvoetbal, he seems to have ditched the formation and adopted every other principle of the famous footballing philosophy.
No side has appeared as flexible with its roster or formation as the Dutch, who completed more passes in the first 20 minutes against Costa Rica than they did during the entirety of their match against Chile in the Group Stage.
They've constantly utilized players out of their normal position, and used the same player to fill multiple positions over the course of a match. They've shifted formation, not only match-to-match, but between attacking and defending within the same contest in the same game state.
It's all added up to offer supporters a version of sweet torture, playing their opponents rather than playing a match. It's also offered advancement.
There's perhaps no better example of the Dutch positional flexibility than Dirk Kuyt, who played right wing-back, right midfielder and left wing on Saturday. During the Round of 16 match against Mexico, Kuyt started at left wing-back, moved to right wing-back, then pushed up to a right forward before moving to take a more central forward role, only to finish the match as a right back after the Netherlands went ahead.
We've also seen the forward attackers fulfil multiple roles, most notably Arjen Robben's transition from roving striker up front to a straight out right winger late in matches. Daley Blind has played as a left wing-back and a central midfielder, while Bruno Martins Indi has moved seamlessly between centreback and fullback depending on where players are in front of him.
There's a sense that this is all the result of a mad scientist, and it's not far off from reality. Once again, we saw van Gaal's willingness to go against tradition by substituting starting goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul with seconds remaining in extra time on Saturday. While the Newcastle 'keeper was championed as the penalty kick expert, his results against shots from the spot would suggest anything else.
More important than a nickname, Krul wasn't Cillessen. Any preparation Costa Rica might have undertaken ahead for penalties was immediately rendered moot. Then, to make matters worse for Los Ticos, Krul was at his brashest before each kick. He strutted around, talked to those about to take the shot, and most importantly, dove the right way against every taker, stopping two.
What does it all mean? This Dutch team — even as it calls on the ideals of its past — isn't like the ones that came before. It's free from the shackles of an overarching philosophy, free from the indoctrinating past. It uses every squad member based on their own capabilities.
If that's run 12 kilometers up and down the flanks in stifling heat, they're in the lineup. If that's utilizing the elements of surprise and intimidation, they're a last minute substitute. And if that's an ability to play left back and central defensive midfielder, then they're going to be called upon to do both.
They're capable of playing counter football against attacking opponents, or playing a possession based game against sides that are more prone to sitting back.
They're employing the freest form of football the Dutch have ever played, forcing themselves to take their fate in their own hands.
More specifically, to Dutch fans on Saturday who have suffered through the cruelest that the World Cup has to offer, it means they don't lose in extra time or penalties anymore. And that's all the reason needed to hop aboard this roller coaster ride one more time.
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