It unfolded like this: At first, Brazil was in serious love with the Netherlands; then it became wary of its new squeeze; and then it became very afraid.
The Netherlands is, for now, the hot bet to win this World Cup. For two reasons: First, the Dutch team is a goal-scoring machine. Second, it can and will play tactical, defensive soccer when required and still win with aplomb.
Here in Brazil, the nervy thrill of Brazil’s opening-day victory over Croatia was still humming when along came the Netherlands to demolish World and European champions Spain in a 5-1 victory.
The gist of the local response here was “OMG!” In particular, local legend Tostao was ecstatic. The man who was part of Brazil’s fabled World Cup-winning team of 1970 is a revered pundit now. After his playing career ended, he studied to become a medical doctor and briefly abandoned the soccer world. But he never stopped offering commentary, and now, thanks to his reputation as an intellectual and the fact that he was a player of rare skill, his opinion carries significant weight.
He gushed about the Dutch. They were “exceptional,” their attacking style was “magisterial” and he foresaw the Netherlands returning to the forefront of world soccer with such a team. He referred to the glory days of Dutch “total football,” which brought the Netherlands to two World Cup finals in the 1970s, and talked about how the current style of play was “different, daring, transgressive.”
He even celebrated the swagger of the Dutch off the field, pointing out that while Spanish players had trained hard in a secured location, the Dutch players went to the beach and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Brazil.
It sounded like a crush, and it was. Fleeting, too.
The Netherlands then played Australia and looked less perfect, allowing two goals in a 3-2 win.
Still, locally, the view was that the Dutch had been a tad overconfident, one of Australia’s goals, by Tim Cahill, was just one of those wonder-goals that happen every now and then.
It was the Dutch victory over Chile on Monday that made Brazil very glad it would not meet this team in the next, knockout round. What the Dutch did was canny, astute and, in this neck of the woods, awe-inspiring. Chile had run rampant in two games. It breezed past Australia 3-1 and humiliated Spain 2-0. The wind was in Chile’s sails. The team is strikingly energetic and organized. It has enormous fan support here, and there has been an emotional heft to its journey.
And so it seemed set to unfold – Chile riding the crest of a wave. But when the game was over, the full picture was revealed. Chile enjoyed 68-per-cent of the ball possession. The Dutch had the ball for only 32-per-cent of the time and still managed to win 2-0.
The Dutch smothered Chile. It was a cunning, tactical, adroit victory. It revealed that for all the attacking flair in displays against Spain and Australia, the Netherlands could adapt, chameleon-like, to any environment and do more than survive – it could summon a win, possibly against anybody.
There is a keen sense here that Brazil’s team is strong, physically, and it has Neymar to do magic, but it lacks some cohesion.
It’s the Netherlands that now looks to be the complete package, the best all-round team here, the most cunning and adaptable of them all.
This will only surprise cynics and surface students of the game. The Dutch made it to the final of the last World Cup. There, on the ultimate stage, it had no answer but brutality for Spain’s tiki-taka style of possession soccer. That match seemed to establish the Netherlands as certain to fail here.
The team has superstars in Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, but it is far from packed with maestros. It has a number of players who play in the Dutch league, considered well below the standard of leagues in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. When was the last time a Dutch league team made it far in the UEFA Champions League?
None of that matters now. This Netherlands team is formidable. It must certainly be the most feared. There’s a relief here that Brazil meets Chile next, not those Dutch that Tostão was ecstatic about. Everybody looks at the stat – 32-per-cent possession and a solid 2-0 win – and fears its meaning.