Brazil turn up at their own funeral
Most third place games in recent World Cup have featured teams that manifestly should not have been there. Diego Forlan's Uruguay were only too happy to have made it to the semifinals in 2010, and over the past 20 years we've seen a crowd of improbable sides contest the match -- Turkey, South Korea, Croatia and Sweden are but a few examples.
The Netherlands, though they perhaps overachieved significantly in even getting out of a very difficult group, don't really belong in this category. They're a perennial power; hopes are always high even without a particularly good squad. A semifinal exit represents a good showing, not something to enjoy (and if they're looking for that they can probably just take a look at the replay of their opening match*). And Brazil definitely weren't happy to be there.
*It's slightly amusing that a team managed to beat both pre-tournament favourites by a combined score of 8-1 and yet only finished in third place.
The third place playoff is a nice idea for unfancied teams that have battled their way into the semifinals before eventually succumbing to a stronger side. They can enjoy one final day in the spotlight, a relaxed reward for a month's worth of hard work. For a team widely expected to win and then beaten at the penultimate step, though, the final game is an embarrassment. And considering the sheer scope of the Seleção's humbling at the hands of Germany on Tuesday, Brazil's match against the Netherlands was a little like asking the recently deceased to turn up at their own funeral.
"Yes, yes, very sad ... here, try some Bite-Sized Sandwiches of Despair, they cheered me right up" Robin van Persie seemed to say as he scooped home that third-minute penalty. "This Potato Salad of Shame and Regret is rather good ... oh, and we're sorry for your loss," uttered the right foot of Daley Blind as it spanked home the second. "Where has all the food gone? This is terrible!" Georginio Wijnaldum added, rather rudely, in injury time. "Boo!" Went the crowd. This was a wake with opinionated spectators, after all.
A post-mortem Brazil were less shambolic than against Germany, but they were still some way from competent as the Dutch heaped a second humiliation in four days upon the beleaguered hosts. Thiago Silva's restoration failed to help the back line, Fred's removal for Jô went about as well as had been predicted (which is to say badly), and by the end of the second half Fernandinho's contribution to the match had devolved into running about and fouling people as hard as he could.
On the bench, reclining in state but with intermissions for waving, was Neymar. Brought back to the team, presumably, as a morale-boosting exercise, Neymar was rather obviously having no fun at all watching his compatriots get battered. One suspects that he'll be the only Brazilian associated with this team to escape the tournament without tarnishing, but one also suspects he'll have been taking it harder than anyone else, that the what ifs will end up haunting him for the rest of his career.
Fortunately for Brazil, there's nowhere to go from here but up.
Arjen Robben signs off
At the age of thirty, and with a game built around speed, it seems likely that last night's playoff was Arjen Robben signing off as a major World Cup player. He didn't score, but he did pretty much everything else a Robben performance requires: got fouled early on for a penalty which he made look like a bit like a dive; got fouled late on for a definite penalty which wasn't given; spent the time in between running round opponents and occasionally passing to teammates, irritating friend and foe in equal measure. Almost as much as he irritated the watching neutrals.
Because nobody loves Robben if they don't have to. Few footballers raise the collective hackle like he does (and those that do have to resort to biting people for attention). Quite why is a mystery: yes, he dives, but so does everybody. Yes, he's selfish, but so is everybody. Perhaps he's a bit less shameless in his simulation -- don't admit diving, Arjen! -- and less contrite when his selfishness leads to goal kicks, rather than goals, but that doesn't quite seem to explain the depths from which the vitriol comes.
This does rather seem to distract from the fact that, at his best, Robben is a jet-heeled terror, capable of leaving even the best defenders looking like shambling amateurs. Look at what he did to Spain in the first game of the group stage. Exactly the kind of player that you'd think everybody would enjoy, yet any pleasure that Robben gives seems to be eternally hedged against considerations of his general unloveliness.
Aesthetics aside, however, his Robben's contribution to World Cups will be defined in two misses, or rather two blocked shots: Javier Mascherano's biology-defying tackle in the semi-final just gone, and Iker Casillas' one-on-one smother in the 2010 final. Being kind, it took excellence from two excellent opponents to deny him; being realistic, those were chances that should have be goals. Few players are given a chance to make a difference at the pointy end of the World Cup, and Robben, for all his brilliance, has passed up two. One suspects he doesn't give much of a toss about the opinions of the neutrals. But the memories of those misses may stay with him.
Michel Vorm and two minutes of glory
Going into last night's match, only one player from the Netherlands squad had yet to see the pitch at some point in the World Cup. Tim Krul had made it on to spare the team's blushes against Costa Rica, but Michel Vorm had spent the entire tournament relaxing, drinking caipirinhas on the beach without giving a passing thought to whether he might be a tad hungover prior to a match. At least, we hope so.
Against Brazil, Louis van Gaal was forced into a change after Daley Blind apparently made no contact on Oscar, with the latter going into the book for diving. The imaginary foul required Blind to be carried off in a stretcher, with Daryl Janmaat coming on. The minutes stretched on. In the 90th, the substitutes' board was readied. But it was only for Joël Veltman, coming on for the first time since Netherlands' opening game. It looked like Vorm's chance had gone.
But finally, the moment arrived. Three minutes into injury time, two minutes from the end of the Dutch World Cup run, Michel Vorm made his first appearance, making the Netherlands the first team ever to use all players in their squad at the World Cup. Despite being part of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 squads, Vorm had never been called upon in a major tournament. Here was his chance! He could step up for his country, ensure that Brazil didn't come back from 3-0 down in the last two minutes!
Yet all Vorm needed to do was stand by as Maicon sent a shot high and wide. Still, he played -- he was on that field in Brasilia, and he's going to bore his great grandchildren with the tale.
What's most astounding about this story isn't that Vorm had the chance to stand in goal. It's that those 22 players had been used in the six matches prior. From a collection of players that no one thought would do much of anything, van Gaal assembled a team, rather than the collection of superegos we've seen in recent years. They weren't always perfect, but it was a damn sight better than watching them self-destruct two years ago -- and it gives us something to look forward to going into Euro 2016 qualifying.