Perhaps, as Arjen Robben has suggested, Louis van Gaal has a “golden willy”. Perhaps it is down to the lucky orange bracelet he was given by the kids of one of the national team’s sponsors. Whatever, it seems to be working.
His every gamble has paid off as Holland have found a way to clear each hurdle. Yet, as any departure lounge self-help book will tell you, the harder you work the luckier you get.
And the Old Trafford-bound Van Gaal’s bold gamble in sending on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen just before the end of 120 at first excruciating, then absorbing and ultimately dramatic minutes had been seven weeks in the making.
That is how long the imposing Newcastle United goalkeeper had been studying the penalty takers of the other teams in the competition. The scheme, cooked up by Van Gaal with the goalkeeping coach, Frans Hoek, was based on cold, hard logic.
With the plan kept secret from the other players, Krul was taken aside shortly before kick-off to explain that he would be called on if the match went to penalties. Krul had saved two penalties of his last 20. The 25-year-old Cillessen had saved none of the 16 faced in his career.
As Costa Rica’s exhausted players lined up on the halfway line on their knees and Holland’s put their arms round one another, Krul began psyching out each opponent by telling them he knew where they would put the ball. And he did, going the right way every time.
He defended his behaviour. “I don’t think I did anything wrong. I did nothing crazy. I didn’t shout in an aggressive manner. I was trying to get in their heads and it worked,” said Krul, adding that he would do the same against Argentina if the situation arose.
Holland’s record in penalty shootouts is second only to England’s for heartache and failure. Yet the decision to send on Krul not only made rational sense – Van Gaal said that his longer reach made him a better bet – but psychologically emboldened Holland’s players.
“The manager had obviously seen me in the last seven weeks training,” Krul said. “Hoek told the manager my qualities and he believed in me. He made the change with one minute to go but he believed in me. To save two penalties is a little boy’s dream.”
Having hit the woodwork three times and alighted on a goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, who was again in outstanding form, Holland might have been forgiven for thinking their luck had run out.
Jorge Luis Pinto had set up his hard-running Costa Rica team expertly and they had defended for their lives to take the game to penalties. Pitch perfect in their shootout against Greece in the previous round, their vibrant fans celebrated reaching the end of extra time with abandon.
Chants of “Olé, olé, olé, Ticos, Ticos” rang round the stadium as the Brazilians in the crowd made their loyalties clear. Van Gaal, as with his previous gambits, admitted he would have been heavily criticised if his goalkeeper switch had not come off. But Krul’s introduction appeared to spook Costa Rica. Afterwards the goalkeeper said the shock on the opposing manager’s face was “priceless”. The moment Bryan Ruiz saw his penalty, the team’s second, saved low to Krul’s left the outcome seemed preordained.
“What makes me so proud of this team is that they never give up,” said Dirk Kuyt, the ever-willing utility player and here a right wing-back. “We were very unlucky with some of the chances we missed. From the first minute to the last, and even in penalties, we were convinced we were going to reach the semi-final.”
Holland’s old guard – Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Kuyt – are the glue that holds this gang of mainly home-based young players together. It was the quartet Van Gaal turned to for the shootout and they coolly dispatched their penalties past Navas, who had saved two in the previous round.
Cillessen, the Ajax goalkeeper, was the first to charge on to the pitch amid the scrum of players rushing to congratulate Krul but admitted he was initially furious at being taken off. He booted a water bottle, soaking the substituted Bruno Martins Indi. “I didn’t know it was going to happen, so I was angry,” Cillessen said. “I wanted to play and play the penalty shootout. It is a pity I wasn’t told about it before but it worked very well.”
After Michael Umaña’s penalty was saved to confirm their elimination, Costa Rica’s players sat dazed in their dugout. Later, pride in a World Cup run that has stunned many would begin to replace the numbness of defeat. Indeed, if Cillessen had not saved from Marco Ureña with three minutes of extra time left – moments after Costa Rica had won their first corner of the match – there would have been no call for Krul and they would have been celebrating a remarkable victory.
“I don’t know how much of the ball we had and how many shots against the woodwork and how many chances we had,” Van Gaal said. “It goes to show a goal is the most important thing. Nothing else counts, especially in a tournament like this..”
Cillessen is expected to start against Argentina in São Paulo but, if the semi-final also heads towards penalties, it will be no surprise to see his number come up again.
Spot-kicks aside, the Dutch laboured at times against opponents determined to use all means at their disposal to stop them and who were superbly marshalled by Navas and Giancarlo González.
Having switched from 5-3-2 to 3-4-3 in the absence of Nigel de Jong, the Oranje were disjointed. Memphis Depay, brought in on the left of a front three, disappointed. The forwards thrown on by Van Gaal to break the deadlock, first Jeremain Lens and then Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, were largely anonymous.
Van Persie, having invested so much in recovering from injury to captain his side in Brazil, looked heavy-legged. He missed several chances he might ordinarily have gobbled up and was frequently caught offside.
Aside from a free-kick that smacked a post and a dipping shot in extra time that came back off the crossbar, Sneijder also found it hard to impose himself.
That left the imperious Robben. Dripping in sweat and with at least two Costa Rica defenders in close attendance at all times, he kept going and going. Riding tackles and apparently determined to stay on his feet this time, he was his side’s relentless heartbeat.
Afterwards the Bayern Munich player was almost evangelical in his praise for Holland’s miracle-working coach. Faith in Van Gaal has translated into a firm belief they can win this World Cup.
“We have a superb trainer, a coach who works magic like this all the time,” he said. “Nobody knew about what he was going to do apart from one goalkeeper.”