COMMENT: Netherlands lost their World Cup semi-final against Argentina on penalties in Sao Paulo on Wednesday - but they overachieved in BrazilBy Greg Stobart in Brazil
Netherlands arrived at the World Cup with nobody giving them a chance. The supporters and media back home appeared convinced that they would fail to even get beyond the group stage.
They leave bursting with pride and with their heads held high after only being denied a second consecutive World Cup final appearance by a penalty shootout in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.
Argentina are a better side than Holland and deserve their place in Sunday’s final, but for the Europeans this campaign was just as impressive as their march to the final in South Africa four years ago.
Forty years after the Dutch invented Total Football, Louis van Gaal’s men had to play to their limitations and overachieved to even reach the last four.
The defence was too weak and the squad too young – an average age of just over 26 – to ever seriously compete for the trophy, especially with their most influential midfielder Kevin Strootman out with a knee injury.
That view was presumably shared by the KNVB chiefs who only booked the team's Rio de Janeiro hotel accomodation up until the semi-final, but the team defied expectations.
The style was pragmatic, organised and played to Netherlands’ strengths in attack, where the pace and skill of Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder could cause defences problems.
In their opening match they smashed reigning champions Spain 5-1 as they won all three group games, also beating highly rated Chile on the way.
In the knockout stages, they showed heart and team spirit not often association with Oranje squads, coming back at the death to beat Mexico in the last 16 and winning on penalties against Costa Rica in the quarter-finals.
Argentina were a stretch too far, but the campaign was infinitely preferable to the European championships two years ago when they went home in shame having lost all three group games amid infighting and public dissent.
Here, they were a real team and it showed until the last minute as they held off Lionel Messi & Co. and battled through to a goalless draw with Argentina.
"From the bottom of my heart, if you see how everyone was behind the team, I think we can all be very proud of these boys," Robben told NOS after the game.
"I think we should change our mindset quickly, we've done amazingly. At the moment it feels a disappointment, but we've done our best."
A glance at the two starting XIs on Wednesday told the story.
Up against the likes of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi, Van Gaal again fielded the five-man defence they worked so well in the tournament opener against Spain.
Yet it consisted of four men who had never played their club football outside the Eresdivisie, a 33-year-old striker in Dirk Kuyt and Ron Vlaar.
Who could blame Van Gaal for looking to stifle the game and hit Argentina on the counter-attack with their individual quality in the final third?
Oranje were the underdogs. It was the only way they were ever going to win and it had worked previously in the tournament.
But they played with team spirit and tactical discipline, for which Van Gaal should take the credit. Some of the 62-year-old’s inspired decisions played a key role in Netherlands’ progress to the semi-final.
They go home having failed to imitate their final appearance in 2010 – but with an awful lot of pride.