Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul played for precisely 44 seconds of Netherlands’ game against Costa Rica on Saturday, but still emerged the hero. Impressive, huh? In a move that was jaw-dropping for its chutzpah, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal swapped his goalkeepers just prior to the penalty shootout that would decide the quarterfinal.
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The diary has noted previously that the coach always somehow seems to make the game about him, but the Web was in meltdown when he did the unthinkable and switched keepers right at the death. (Sides have been known to bring on an expert penalty taker, but a stopper? Hardly ever.) Perhaps Val Gaal’s genius is only truly appreciated when you realize that Krul is hardly regarded as an expert penalty saver at his club side, Newcastle United – two saves out of 20 attempts, or one in every 10 penalties. At that rate, he’d save half a penalty here.
And yet the Dutchman saved two of the five Costa Rican efforts here. True, he engaged in a level of brinkmanship that went beyond sporting (approaching the penalty takers prior to the kick and telling them where they would be placing their penalties – and sure enough, he went the right way every single time), but it all added to the drama. Also adding to the fun and games were the camera shots of No.1 Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, who’d suffered the very public humiliation of being replaced by his No.3 deputy (not even the second-best!) just seconds before the one part of the game that can make the goalkeeper a hero.
“I psyched them out,” Krul told the BBC afterward. “It is something I have dreamed about since I was a little boy – to have that moment when you make the crucial save and then all the boys are running toward you!” The thoughts of Cillessen – who had not been notified of Van Gaal’s plan to trade keepers in the event of a shootout – are not yet publicly known, but he must have been ziek als een papegaai, as they say in Amsterdam.
Krul’s cameo eclipsed the performance of Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who had single-handedly (well, two-handedly and two-footedly, to be more accurate) repelled the Dutch during the 120 minutes prior to penalties.
Much like its Round-of-16 game against Greece, Costa Rica was barely a threat in offense, concentrating instead on keeping the Dutch at bay. Frequently it made for a frustrating game, with proceedings only really springing to life five or so minutes before the end of normal and extra time. The Dutch hit the woodwork thrice (twice through sumptuous Wesley Sneijder shots), but never overpowered its minnow opponent, which only really had one great chance to win it (just before the end, when Cillessen made his one regulation save).
Netherlands will now get a chance to avenge its 1978 final loss to Argentina in Wednesday’s semifinal, after La Albiceleste (“the white and sky blue”) yet again scraped and scrapped its way to a narrow victory, this time 1-0 against Belgium. Although Leo Messi didn’t score, he was at the heart of all his side’s good moves (yes, all three of them), and it was that trademark rugged Argentine defense that kept out the Europeans.
You may recall that the Belgians had a record-breaking 39 shots in its previous game against the United States, 16 of them requiring saves from Tim Howard. In contrast, on Saturday it managed a miserly single shot on target. That’s soccer.
Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain was the only player to score from open play in the quarterfinals, the other four goals coming from a penalty, corner and two free kicks. It’s all in stark contrast to the group stage, when teams couldn’t stop scoring. How come the goals have dried up like an Eskimo in the Mojave? The diary can only cite the three obvious reasons:
1. The fear factor. Teams are increasingly aware of what’s at stake and are less prepared to take chances. Fewer players are committing themselves to forward runs, making attacks easier to defend against. Also, with the stakes so high, players are less inclined to try the unpredictable. Easier to play the safe pass and keep possession rather than try a killer move that may surrender possession.
2. The tiredness factor. Five games in three or so weeks is not a killer workload, but at the end of a grueling domestic season and allied to the sometimes inclement conditions in Brazil, it all takes its toll. Physical and mental fatigue both have been on show in the quarterfinals.
3. The canceling-out factor. As the lesser teams have been eliminated, there has been less to choose between well-matched opponents. France and Germany canceled each other out in the first quarterfinal, a scene repeated in Saturday’s quarterfinals. The anomaly was Brazil vs. Colombia, which had a ferocity not matched by the other three ties.
Of course, that ferocity and some insipid refereeing is what led to Neymar’s tournament-ending injury. What we really needed was 22 soccer moms on the sidelines, warning their offspring that somebody was going to get hurt if all this rough’n’tumble didn’t stop. It’s all fun and games until somebody fractures a bone in their spine, as the new Brazilian saying goes.
Will the semifinals on Tuesday and Wednesday provide more goals and entertainment? The diary’s trusty Magic 8 Ball says don’t count on it. The diary will be back on Tuesday to find out.