They knew that this chance might not come again for decades, if ever. When would they have another messiah like Messi? When would the tournament be close enough for their face-painted fans to drive to? When would they have a chance to lift the golden trophy inside Brazil’s holiest of sporting shrines? “We must hold onto the dream,” midfielder Javier Mascherano had declared as Argentina was preparing for yet another World Cup showdown with the Netherlands.
And so the Albiceleste did on Wednesday evening in soggy Sao Paulo, grasping it by the digits of goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who blocked two Dutch bids in the shootout and gave his teammates a 10-finger boost into Sunday’s final against Germany in Rio de Janeiro. “We never gave up on winning tonight and my players gave everything, every last drop of sweat,” declared Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella after his squad had won the shootout by a 4-2 count after 120 scoreless minutes.
Thus does soccer’s wheel come around two dozen years later. The last time the Argentines played for the championship, having survived consecutive shootouts to get there, their opponents were the Germans — the West Side version. It was the ugliest of finals, decided by a penalty kick in the 84th minute when Argentina was down to 10 men. This one could be one for the ages.
It could have been one for history had the Netherlands prevailed. That would have guaranteed a European champion for the first time when the tournament was held in South America and put the Oranje in the position of winning their first Cup.
The Dutch blew their bankroll with their 5-1 dissection of defending champion Spain in their opening match and never came close to having an outing like it again. They didn’t put Australia away until midway through the second half. They were scoreless with Chile with 13 minutes to play before reserves scored a couple of goals. They were down to Mexico with two minutes to play and escaped on a controversial penalty kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time. Then they survived a shootout with Chile because coach Louis van Gaal gambled and brought in keeper Tim Krul off the bench.
This time van Gaal didn’t have that luxury because he’d used up his three substitutions. So he had to go with starter Jasper Cillessen, who’d never saved a penalty and who got his hands on Maxi Rodriguez’s decisive kick but couldn’t stop it.
The Dutch walked the high-wire so often that they should have been playing for Ringling Brothers. This time their feet slipped twice as Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder both were denied by Romero, who’ll have a sticky-fingered statue of him erected in Buenos Aires if he can stifle the Germans, too. “It’s luck, that’s the truth,” said Romero. “You can dive and not make it, like happened to their goalkeeper.”
Few contenders ever have worked their way through a global tournament with less attention than have the Argentines. Their draw — Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, and Nigeria — prompted minimal interest. While everybody was talking about Brazil’s sleepwalk and Spain’s collapse and England’s no-show and the Group of Death and Luis Suarez starring in “Jaws 3” against the Italians, Argentina was grinding through five one-goal victories, three of them by 1-0.
That was how Spain did it four years ago, all the way to the title. That’s how the Albiceleste is doing it, riding a string of 373 scoreless minutes. If anyone had a chance of putting a couple past them it was the Netherlands and its golden triangle of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Sneijder, the most dangerous attacking troika in the tournament.
They never got on the gallop. Van Persie, who’d had a stomach ailment early in the week, was a phantom and came off exhausted after 96 minutes. Sneijder never sprung himself. Robben, left to go it on his own, couldn’t break through.
The Dutch evidently were so worried about Lionel Messi zipping through them that they wouldn’t risk going forward and when they finally did, in the dying minutes of overtime, they couldn’t connect. So it came down to penalties and a decision by Van Gaal that will be debated in Amsterdam beer halls for generations.
Instead of starting off with Robben he went with Vlaar, who’s a superb defender but no sniper. “I felt that Vlaar was the best player on the pitch,” stated the coach, who said that two other players turned down the leadoff spot. When Romero stuffed Vlaar and Messi nailed his bid, the Dutch were on the wrong side of the see-saw. When Sneijder was stopped, too, the Dutch essentially were done for. Rodriguez, the three-time Cup veteran who’d come on in the 101st minute, was the cool hand with the hot foot.
So did the Argentines get back to a place where they haven’t been since Diego Maradona wore the blue-and-white jersey and get a rematch with the same people who killed their dream in Rome and took away their crown. Thus does the wheel come around for La Albiceleste. If not now, when again?