Thank you, Robin van Persie. Thank you, Netherlands national football team.
Thank you for saving the 2014 FIFA World Cup before it even needed saving.
The Netherlands emphatically defeated Spain 5-1 in the opening game of Group B action on Friday. The victory took the Netherlands to the top of Group B and sent Spain, the defending World Cup champion, crashing to the bottom.
The Dutch initially fell behind after Xabi Alonso converted a 27th-minute penalty kick that Diego Costa earned on a contentious decision by the referee (whose name we won’t bother looking up).
For the next 17 minutes, we feared that the topics of diving, cheating and poor refereeing would continue to dominate the World Cup conversation, casting a giant shadow of negativity over the event on its second of 31 days.
Thankfully, van Persie took flight one minute before halftime and erased those fears.
The Netherlands captain and star striker scored a “goal of the tournament” contender. Do yourself a favor and watch van Persie’s goal again and again and again.
Van Persie’s flying header was the first great goal of the 2014 World Cup. Many more will follow. It reminds seasoned soccer watchers and newbies alike what this World Cup thing is all about.
More importantly, van Persie’s golazo inspired his teammates and sparked a second-half goal flurry that earned the Netherlands a classic World Cup victory. The Netherlands’ four-goal second half turned Group B upside down, making a mockery of (our) predictions and “expert” pregame analysis. It also busted brackets of armchair World Cup junkies everywhere. The Netherlands’ upset reminded us that the team with the brightest stars and successful track record doesn’t always win in tournament soccer.
Netherlands head coach Louis van Gaal is already considered a “Dutch Master” but he enhanced his reputation Friday. Van Gaal set up his team in a revolutionary (for a Dutch side) 5-3-2 formation, which denied Spain space on the wings and clogged the final third with defenders.
The Dutch players did their part by showing astounding level of commitment and applying van Gaal’s philosophy tactics to perfection: sit deep, absorb pressure, break forward with speed and finish scoring chances when they come. It was a textbook approach for weaker teams to take against a stronger foe.
In terms of a spectacle, the second half had it all. Pouring rain, goals, more controversy — van Persie collided with Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas before Stefan de Vrij made it 3-1 in the 63rd minute — mistakes, yellow cards, Spain’s utter capitulation and more goals.
The last 45 minutes of Spain-Netherlands was beyond the control of those who threaten our love affair with World Cup soccer: the prognosticators, FIFA administrators, suspected game fixers, unruly fans, those who force their uninformed opinions on the public and so on.
It was pure soccer — 22 players, one ball and a referee — and all we could was enjoy the show.
Afterward, new storylines emerged. Is this the end of Spain’s reign at the top? Are the Dutch suddenly contenders to win it all? Will van Persie or Arjen Robben out-gun Neymar, Lionel Messi or someone else and claim the Golden Boot?
Spain-Netherlands set a high benchmark for entertainment value at the 2014 World Cup … on Day 2.
Dank u, Nederland. Dank u, RVP. Dank U, van Gaal.
Your move, every other team.