Onah horrible, embarrassing night in São Paulo eight years ago, Louis van Gaal could choose from a list of regrets. There was the fact that Lionel Messi was rationed to bits in a game almost devoid of clear chances; he could think that, when we arrived, Javier Mascherano slipped in with Arjen Robben about to score; then came a shootout and, with it, the kicker.
Van Gaal had made all of his substitutions by the time time penalties seemed nailed down and couldn’t bring in Tim Krul, who had been successfully deployed exactly for this goal against Costa Rica. Instead, Jasper Cillessen was powerless to stop Argentina scoring four times while Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder inflated their lines. A place in the final eluded him. “I don’t like to think about it,” Van Gaal said this week.
It means the Netherlands’ most recent memory of a bright and glorious game is one of painful hard work, but Van Gaal has a chance to send those demons packing on Friday. Besides, he doesn’t care who knows. “We’ve got a score to settle,” he said after both teams secured their round of 16.
The statement was generally brusque and possibly a glimpse into why the 71-year-old agreed return for a third term Last year. He will be replaced by Ronald Koeman in 2023: it’s a last chance for the ultimate prize and the meaning is that he sees no value in playing things down.
An example of this is the wonderfully executed first goal against the United States, which was scored by Memphis Depay after a scintillating move. “It was a team goal, which transcends everything,” said Van Gaal. “It was the best moment of this World Cup so far, really a great goal.” He bristled with lavish praise from Brazil’s attack masterclass against south korearefusing to let his own side’s achievements be swept away.
Van Gaal knows what he is doing. The Netherlands are at their best when confident, with a touch of swagger, grace and cunning backed by steely edges. Eight of his squad are 23 or younger and the same number have less than 10 caps; the respective figures for Argentina are four and three. A relatively inexperienced band needs their hype man: someone who can deliver home truths but who can, ultimately, convince them that their shining moments are more enduring than mere flashes.
They haven’t drawn much attention at this tournament, certainly by the mainstream powers standard, but Van Gaal wants them to pump up the chest. It launched into the spirit of things, going viral during his dancing skills in a video of the festive reception which welcomed the team to their hotel on Saturday evening. Every Dutch player facing the media this week has mentioned an extraordinary atmosphere created by Van Gaal since his return. It’s usually easy to tell when footballers are trotting a line, but none of that seems affected.
“The team unity we have is special,” Virgil van Dijk said on Wednesday, trading jokes with goalkeeper Andries Noppert between questions as if to prove the point. Gone are the days when Dutch egos clashed on the pitch or over dinner. They have a Barcelona star in Depay and one of Europe’s most sought-after talents in Cody Gakpobut Van Gaal, who would never advocate nonsense anyway, has shaped a unit where no one thinks exceptions should be made for them.
Van Dijk chose not to bite on an invitation to play a quarter-final against Argentina: such rhetoric is clearly left to his coach. But there’s no escaping the spice of the game: it dates back to 1974 and a masterful Cruyff-inspired 4-0 victory in the second group stage, which led to the admiration of the epithet ‘Naranja Mecanica’. in the country of their adversaries. This was dismantled in the 1978 final against an ominous and sinister backdrop in Buenos Aires, but the sparkle returned when Dennis Bergkamp kept the world spellbound with its winner of the last eight in 1998.
“We’re brought up on it,” Nathan Aké said of a goal that stood the test of time. “It’s with you, and we want to make those memories as well.”
To have a chance of doing so, Aké, Van Dijk and company will almost certainly have to stop Messi again. Vlaar had the match of his life helping to overpower the best player in the world in Brazil, but in a cruel twist, it counted for nothing.
Perhaps it will be a goalkeeper who will wash away the lingering angst of Van Gaal Ports. Noppert, the player from Heerenveen who only played 54 senior matches at the age of 28 seemed flippant about facing a penalty from Messi. “I’m always ready for that,” he said. “He can also miss, we saw it in a match of this tournament [against Poland]. He is like us, he is human. Of course he is good, but of course I can save penalties.
The confidence that Van Gaal instilled was there in a nutshell. He will soon find out if that’s enough to reignite one of international football’s most compelling rivalries.