RICHMOND, VA—Sir Alex Ferguson is capable of making some remarkably biased comments whenever Manchester United or its nearest rivals are involved, but the veteran manager (and ex-Scotland boss) is generally well worth listening to when discussing football in general. Fergie was quoted by FourFourTwo magazine as saying World Cups don't really get going until the quarterfinal stage.
The quarterfinal stage is here, and if today's first match is any indication, both the intensity and the pressure have risen two or three notches from the previous rounds. A rather stunning second-half meltdown by Brazil sees them crashing out of the tournament, suffering their first defeat all time in the World Cup finals after leading at halftime. Two aerial goals by Holland see the Dutch advance to the semi-final.
This was more a victory for total aggression than total football. It has been famously written of the catastrophic Dutch defeat to West Germany in the 1974 final that the brilliant orange "forgot to score the second goal." The same might be said of Brazil today: the South American side seemed to be on all cylinders early in the match. Robinho had the ball in the net twice within the first ten minutes of the game; the first was chalked off on a close (but correct) offside call, the second one counted.
For most of the rest of the first half, Brazil were clearly on top. But they didn't get the second. Defender Juan had a glorious opportunity to one-time a cross from 6 yards out, but blasted it well over. Then Maarten Stekelenburg weighed in with what might be the save of the tournament, getting a paw to Kaka's bending effort from just outside the box that looked goalbound. Robinho had created the chance with a remarkable touchline run beating at least two Dutch defenders.
Holland struggled to create meaningful chances in the first half, but began wearing Brazil down with tough tackling. Brazil gave as good as it got, and Arjen Robben can be justly accused of cynicism on one or two occasions after being fouled (or appearing to be fouled) by left-back Michel Bastos. Bastos eventually had to be taken off to avoid picking up a red card. Overall, this was an ill-tempered affair—Robinho smiled like he was in a Nike ad after his goal, but on more occasions could be seen berating opponents and the referee.
Early in the second half there was little indication that the dynamic of the game would change, but three straight hammer blows allowed the Dutch to take control of this game. First, a bad mix-up between keeper Julio Cesar and defender Felipe Melo that produced an own goal off what should have been a routine catch on Wesley Sneijder's high ball in the box. Second, after conceding a probably needless corner, Sneijder got himself on to a flick-on to give the Dutch the lead.
Finally, Felipe Melo allowed his composure to snap with a needless stomp on Robben after play had stop to earn an instant red card—well played to the Japanese referee for spotting that. Yes, it had been an ill-tempered game with players on either side pushing the boundaries of fair play. But Melo's act was sheer stupidity, and for that alone his side deserved to go out of the tournament.
In the final minutes, Brazil applied some pressure, with the best half-chance falling to Kaka, but never really looked that likely to score. Holland had at least three glorious opportunities to add a third goal.
They didn't, but it doesn't matter. Holland are through and Brazil are out. There's no reason to make excuses for this Brazil side, but I do feel that they missed Elano (injury) on the day. Elano is a smooth attacking midfielder who has the best field vision and best ability to place a carefully weighted ball on the team, and also can find openings to finish off moves.
Without Elano, Brazil played essentially with two right backs. Granted, these are probably the two best right backs in the world (Maicon and Daniel Alves). But Alves, playing in the more advanced role, is more a power player than an intricate passer. Moreover, Brazil missed his Elano's composure.
But injuries and suspensions are part of the tournament, so Brazil can have no real complaints. Holland overcame its own late injury problem, with Joris Mathijsen a late scratch in defense. Now the Dutch have what will be rightly seen as a glorious chance to advance to the World Cup final—and finally complete the unfinished business of 1974.