SAO PAULO >> Another World Cup, another sad story for the Netherlands.
A tournament that began so brightly for the men in the vibrant orange shirts will end with a game their coach thinks is pointless and which the squad isn’t really interested in playing.
“They can keep it,” forward Arjen Robben said of the third-place game. “Only one prize counts and that is becoming world champion.”
Reflecting their gloom, the Dutch squad began its preparations for Saturday’s third-place match against host Brazil under dreary gray skies in Sao Paulo on Thursday, a day after a painful penalty shootout loss to Argentina in the semifinals ensured another missed opportunity.
Those subdued preparations involved a light workout in the drizzle at Pacaembu Stadium that lasted less than an hour before the players disappeared back down a flight of stairs and into the dressing room. Even the well-meaning and hearty cheers a group of Brazilians gave the players as they arrived for the training session probably won’t have helped.
A month ago, the Dutch were flying high. A 5-1 win over world champion Spain announced them as the team to watch at the World Cup. That status faded gradually and the Netherlands only managed two goals in three games in the knockout stage, none in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
The elimination in a shootout at Itaquerao Stadium on Wednesday night means the crucial Dutch stats now read: Three World Cup finals, two semifinals, still no titles.
Coach Louis van Gaal, who takes charge of his country one more time before moving on to a new challenge with Manchester United, acknowledged that his team had initially been praised as the best at the tournament. Yet it counted for nothing in the end.
“In general, I’m not really interested in what people say about me and my team,” Van Gaal said following the semifinal defeat. “It’s a good thing if people are very positive … but the issue in a championship like this one is that you score one more goal than your opponent, which we didn’t do.”
Van Gaal will also get very little joy from his last game with the national team. He has campaigned for a decade to have the third-place playoff at the World Cup scrapped, he said, because it is meaningless and a drain on players who are already desperately disappointed.
“I think that this match should never be played,” Van Gaal said. “I’ve been saying this for 10 years. But anyway, we will just have to play that match.”
So, what went wrong for the Dutch this time?
The young, inexperienced defense, which was doubted ahead of the World Cup, stood up. But the attack, which won enormous praise after demolishing Spain on a sunny day in Salvador a month ago, pretty much collapsed.
Robben and captain Robin van Persie didn’t score in open play in the knockout games, with Van Persie extending an unwanted personal record: He has still never found the net at the business end of a major tournament.
Like the Dutch teams that lost back-to-back World Cup finals in 1974 and ’78, the Robben-Van Persie generation looks set to finish empty-handed. Robben, Van Persie and midfielder Wesley Sneijder, the trio on which the Dutch squad of 2014 was based, are all 30. Having lost in the final four years ago in South Africa and in the semifinals here, Russia 2018 may be too far away for them to have another shot.
But losing is as much a part of football as winning, Robben said, providing a surprisingly upbeat outlook so soon after another heart-wrenching failure.
“You’re a footballer and sportsman and a defeat hurts, especially when you’re so close to the final,” Robben said. “That is painful but … it’s all part of it.”