Where were these guys four years ago when they thugged it up in Johannesburg because they knew they couldn’t play the Spaniards straight up, when they couldn’t score one goal in 120 minutes in the final? Did the Dutch put their speedskaters into cleats? On what planet does the Netherlands beat Spain by a 5-1 count in a World Cup soccer match?
“Unbelievable,” exulted Dutch striker Robin Van Persie, who just missed a hat trick as the Oranje produced the most lopsided defeat of a defending champion in its first match in the tournament’s 84-year history. “For the whole Netherlands this is a dream come true.”
Nobody saw this coming, at least not by this margin. This was essentially the same Spanish squad that had allowed only two goals in the 2010 tournament and didn’t concede one in its final 433 minutes. Two years ago, when Spain became the first team to win consecutive European titles, it gave up only one tally (to Italy in its opener) and hammered the Azzurri, 4-0, in the final. “It’s inexplicable,” shrugged manager Vicente del Bosque. “I don’t have words.”
La Roja beat you by starving you into submission. On Friday, goalkeeper Iker Casillas and his defenders served up an endless tapas bar to the Dutch, who hadn’t scored five goals in a Cup match since they buried the South Koreans in 1998. Van Persie and Arjen Robben each got a couple, with defender Stefan de Vrij adding one on a doorstep header amid thick traffic off a free kick.
It was the “Slaughter in Salvador” and it could prove fatal to Spain, which likely will have to face Brazil in the second round. The hosts blanched La Roja in last summer’s Confederations Cup final in Rio, which was a red flag for anyone who thought that Spain would repeat as champs this summer.
“This is a very delicate moment for us and all of us have to find a way to solve it,” said del Bosque, whose shattered 11 faces a trap game against Chile on Wednesday. Spain took one upside the head four years ago, losing to the Swiss in the opener, and still collected the trophy, the only country to manage it after dropping its first match.
But this defeat, albeit to a better opponent, was far more harrowing. “Humillacion mundial” declared Marca, Madrid’s sporting daily. It was Spain’s worst defeat in the tournament since Brazil administered a 6-1 samba lesson in the final round in 1950 in Rio de Janeiro. This evolution of La Roja, though, was far more accomplished, the first country to win three major tournaments (a Cup between two Euros) in a row.
Still, only two countries ever have retained their Cup title — Italy in 1938 (when only three non-European entries took part) and Brazil in 1962. And this Spanish edition, while still elite, had been showing its age. While the champs easily qualified from a group that included only one contender in France, they drew twice at home.
The Dutch, meanwhile, ran roughshod over the Turks, Hungarians, and Romanians, scoring 34 goals in 10 matches while allowing only five. And while this bunch isn’t quite at the level of the Clockwork Orange teams of the ’70s whose “total football” approach revolutionized the game, it can do plenty of damage if given time and space.
Their “gouden driehoek” (golden triangle) of Van Persie, Robben, and Wesley Sneijder may be the planet’s most dangerous trio and they made the Spanish defenders look like a bewildered collection of club reserves and Casillas, the world’s best goalkeeper, like a stagestruck rookie caught off his line and scrambling like a fiddler crab.
What was startling was how quickly it all came apart for the champs. After Xabi Alonso spun in a penalty kick in the 27th minute, they had all the sustenance that they ordinarily require since Spain, which was 22-4-4 in Cup play when scoring first, has proven that it can make a paella out of one goal.
But the Dutch answered with a haymaker just before intermission with defender Daley Blind launching a soaring ball from near midfield and Van Persie, their cold-blooded captain, converting with a flying header that went over Casillas’s head for one of the prettiest finishes in tournament history. Then Robben delivered a killer shot in the 53d minute, swerving around defenders Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos and lashing in a left-footer.
So it went, again and again and then again, as the Dutch punished the Spaniards on the break and left them staring into space. For the Oranje, the best team never to win the Cup, it was sweet payback for the 2010 final when they lost, 1-0, in extra time. “Weergaloze revanche,” proclaimed De Telegraaf, Amsterdam’s daily newspaper.
It was indeed “matchless revenge” but for the Netherlands it was only the first step on the road to Rio. “We don’t have anything yet,” cautioned manager Louis Van Gaal. “We’ve made a pretty start. If you beat Australia, then you’ve made a great start.”