Before it was Fortaleza, it was the Dutch stronghold of Schoonenborch—the beautiful city. This was, it’s true, three hundred and seventy-odd years ago when the West India Company took north-east Brazil from the Portuguese, renamed it New Holland and then lost it again to the original colonialists in 1650s. Not much remains of the Dutch tropical moment in South America—the weirdly hallucinatory paintings of Frans Post, complete with sultry stillness and the occasional tapir. Even the old Pernambuco synagogue, survivors of the Inquisition finding a Dutch refuge in Brazil, got torn down in the last century. For the Dutch there was an acclimatization problem; the Company hard-pressed, over-stretched. And disinclined to put a hand on New Spain to the north.
And so it was for much of today’s game: the Dutch battle plan, such as it was, wilting in the brutal heat. Both managers sported ties of their respective colors, though van Gaal’s is more a peach than an orange and as the game went on he wore it with increasing discomfort. What was suddenly wrong with the ox-hide tough Nigel de Jong? Muscle pull? Fortaleza tummy? Migraine? Whatever it was, it seemed to throw everything out of whack, at least that’s the charitable explanation for the headless chicken game his teammates offered for much of the first half. For all the good he did today Robin van Persie might as well have gone off to keep de Jong company or carry on perfecting his hair-do from the sidelines. Robben made fitful runs like an irritated wasp, left wing, right wing, sometimes apparently both simultaneously. Bruno Martins Indi very sensibly decided to play the half—in fact most of the game—walking rather than running, though admittedly he covers more ground in a stroll than most players in a canter. Somewhere, not sure where, was Wesley Sneijder. Cilleson seemed shaky but then the Mexican attack was cutting through midfield like a machete through a pat of Dutch butter. There was one heroic exception to all this lassitude and confusion: Dirk Kuyt—is there a pinker, blonder player in the World Cup?—who notwithstanding his unsuitable skin type charged back and forth and launched himself at everything and everyone as if he refused to acknowledge the Dutch capitulation of 1654, let alone the one today. If there was a dike under pressure from a tropical storm, you know Kuyt, in this mood, would have stuck his finger in the the right place at the right time.
None of these failings of the Orangistas is to diss the sharpness of the thrilling Mexican attack, especially Peralta, a snaky weaver, and the composure of their famous defense. Television camera angles let you see—in dire contrast to their Dutch counterparts—the sureness of their coordination; the elasticity of their positioning. Marquez was the general, which only made the denouement of the whole day all the more tragic for him and his side. If the eventual penalty could be judged a bit iffy, Robben being the Dutch champion from the low diving board, his side were owed one from the first half. And in fact though Robben had begun his launch, there’s little doubt that he was actually fouled. The one great weakness of the Mexican defense was against the set pieces, especially corners, and the Dutch had ten of them. Faced with crosses, the height difference did tell, though Ochoa made some sensational saves, the most sensational of all, straight off his cheekbones, giving new meaning to "saving face." But there was nothing he could do about the cannonball Sneijder sent his way as the very belated equalizer. In any case, the dos Santos goal, a beautiful thing, had finally woken the Dutch up or maybe it was that van Gaal had loosened the knot of his tie and stopped fiddling around with his notes. The substitutions worked, kind of. Memphis Deplay deployed and after a tiggerish combo of uncoordinated energy and self-propelled zeal settled down and made a real difference. An actual football team of some gifts seemed to have reappeared. Hullo, has van Persie gone? How would we know? If Huntelaar never does anything great again, that one perfect penalty will get him the order of the Oranje.
Won't we miss them? Ochoa, Peralto, Marquez, Dos Santos, the great waddle of bouncing madness that is their coach? You bet we will. But then we could say that of so many of the departing teams that have given everything they had—well Chile anyway. England? Oy, don't get me started.