PORT ELIZABETH – The game has only been over a few minutes, but scientists here have already begun working to figure out how the teams from Brazil and the Netherlands switched bodies before Friday’s quarter-final.
Brazil completely dominated play for huge stretches. The Dutch looked laggard and out of sorts for those same stretches. Brazil took an early lead. The Dutch crumpled into their familiar, I-don’t-remember-how-to-pass-anymore game plan.
And somehow, as if refuting its own Dutchness, the team so often disappointed on this stage found a way to come back and win.
The 2-1 win sends the Dutch on to a semi-final encounter with the winner of tonight’s Ghana-Uruguay game. The road back to the finals of this tournament, for the first time in 32 years, now seems open to football’s hard luck kids.
Brazil leaves here with its reputation for steeliness in tatters. They may also leave without the game’s goat, Felipe Melo, who should be requesting asylum any time now.
It was a match-up that turned the old stereotypes of these teams – can’t lose Brazil, can’t find a way to win Netherlands – inside out.
Brazil dominated completely from the opening minutes. Luis Fabiano scored in the 8th minute, but was judged offside. Robinho solved that problem by splitting open the Dutch defence two minutes later, and stabbing home the game’s first goal.
Eighty minutes left, and at that point, it looked like it was over already.
The Dutch reeled about the field for the rest of the first half. They didn’t look much better at the restart.
But then Felipe Melo rose to head away a harmless freekick into the Brazilian area. In the process, he blocked out his own goalkeeper, Julio Caeser. As Caesar flapped at Melo’s back, the midfielder stroked the ball perfectly into the corner of his own net.
Perhaps in an effort to confuse snipers hiding in the Brazilian support, Dunga subbed on another Melo, Gilberto, a few minutes later.
But just as you expected the Brazilian spine to stiffen, it snapped. Once again a set piece did them in. This time, Arjen Robben spiked in a short free kick, that was first flicked on by Dirk Kuyt, and then headed home by leaping 5-foot-7 midfielder Wesley Sneijder. Brazil’s giants on defence looked dumbfounded.
The teams traded blows like tired prize-fighters for the rest of the game, moves that looked like amounting to something before they dissipated into nothing. Again and again, you figured Brazil were about to slot something into place. Again and again, it was the Dutch who came forward instead.
After scoring his game winning goal, Sneijder rushed to the sideline and pounded his head, as if that was the difference.
No, it was Dutch heart that did it.