In the weird theatre of this World Cup, an inciting incident was needed: a matchup of quality teams, nothing lopsided or deflating, just a competitive game featuring two world-class teams that could go either way. It happened on Monday when the Netherlands threw this tournament into life with a nervy, late in the game 2-0 win against Senegal.
Group A always looked like the most open of groups, a safe bet for entertainment and drama, with Ecuador, Senegal and the Dutch battling it out to progress, while Qatar looked weak. Nobody knew quite how weak. Two teams will move on, and this will be a battle to savour.
Senegal is without the injured Sadio Mané, one of the most lethal strikers on the planet, and the gods of soccer conspired to make it all a bit more even-handed, the Netherlands’ main scorer, Memphis Depay, being injured and only coming into the match with 30 minutes left.
This was never going to be a rout for either side. There was pace and drive from both teams from the get-go, Senegal forcing a corner in the first minute and the Dutch coming close to a goal three minutes later. The champions of Africa were clearly not awed by their opponents, with Krépin Diatta and Ismaïla Sarr looking the most dangerous players on the field, surging in from the wings and peppering the Dutch goal with shots.
The Netherlands took a while to settle into their deft-passing game and for a long period it seemed their potency was on corner kicks, with the tall Virgil van Dijk imposing himself to reach the ball, but only coming close to scoring. It was a full 80 minutes into the match, with Depay on the field but appearing hesitant, before the Dutch took control. That it took so long was a tribute to Senegal’s defensive work. In the 84th minute Frenkie de Jong was able to size up that tiring defence and float a gorgeous pass to Cody Gakpo who met the ball perfectly with his head while Senegal keeper Édouard Mendy was one second too slow to react. In injury time, Depay prised open that tiring defence again and while his shot was saved, veteran Davy Klaassen stroked the rebound into the net to seal the win.
The Dutch are back – they didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup – and thank heavens for that. In what is probably the most under-reported story of this World Cup, they are led by 71-year-old manager, Louis van Gaal, who got them here while undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. The former coach of Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United is now in his third – yep, third – time managing the Netherlands. A man whom Simon Kuper of the Financial Times memorably called “a shouty, flat-faced schoolmaster” is indeed a master of choosing young players and combining their talents.
He certainly chose brilliantly with goalkeeper Andries Noppert who had never played for his country before this match. The keeper kept Dutch hopes alive while Senegal was forcing the pace for much of the first half, with some brilliant saves. Noppert has spent most of his career in obscurity, playing in the lower reaches of the Dutch and Italian leagues. For much of last year he had no club to play for, as no one wanted his services. Whatever van Gaal did that to coax greatness from him, it was a genius move.
Now the Netherlands control this intriguing Group A. What awaits is Ecuador on Friday and boy, is that a juicy matchup. Senegal will surely trounce Qatar on the same day.
Much of the world will take sly pleasure in Qatar’s disastrous opening performance against Ecuador. The pleasure is in seeing the unmitigated arrogance of the host country reduced to a shambling display on the field. Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless. Outplayed and outclassed, the lasting memory of this wretched team will be coach Felix Sanchez, forlorn on the sideline. He spent a lot of time shouting, “Abdul! Abdul!!” to get the attention of strapping midfielder Abdulaziz Hatem, who just ignored him. Sanchez then defaulted to his factory-setting demeanour of a man facing a firing squad at dawn. Sympathy? No, not that.
Ecuador was undoubtedly flattered by the hopeless Qataris, and its players had so much time to think that they did that thing many South American players do by instinct; they stroke the ball on receiving it, caressing it instead of passing it quickly. It’s unlikely they will have the same time and space to fondle it against the Netherlands, but they will try, and for that, they are lovable. And lovable anything is in short supply at this weird World Cup.