Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

World Cup 'famous four' take a back seat as team spirit wins the day

Dismiss, for a moment, all thoughts of Wesley Sneijder's pomp, or Arjen Robben tormenting Felipe Melo to the point when rationale gave way to rage and he weighed in with the full force of his studs.



The abiding images of Europe's first golden moment of this tournament include Andre Ooijer forcing Kaka to go outside and on a road to nowhere when he threatened to deliver another twist in the script towards the end. Then Dirk Kuyt, almost setting up a third Dutch goal before his lap of honour, in which he didn't quite know what to do with his hands.



Ooijer didn't make it at Blackburn and Kuyt's name has become synonymous with an unspectacular work ethic at Anfield but it is testament to Bert van Marwijk's management that they played such a part when Holland came up against a Brazilian side which had seemed an unstoppable force. Everyone knew the Dutch had the creative players – Sneijder, Robben, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart are known in the Netherlands as the "famous four" – but it was how they would relate to the more prosaic talents around them which was always going to be key.



The famous quartet were summoned to a meeting with Van Marwijk before the tournament, at which they were told to respect the rest of the team and told not to discuss their superior salaries. "Accept everybody," they were told. It has not entirely worked that way. The "kind of arrogance" which Johan Cruyff spoke of in the finest Dutch players has still been evident and Kuyt was less than pleased with Van Persie's claim before the tournament that the 'famous four' might all play together (presumably without him). He responded with words to the effect that "Van Persie doesn't pick the team".



But the team ethic has been nurtured – and in ways which England can look at rather ruefully today. While England were restless in Rustenburg, Van Marwijk decided to base his players at a hotel in busy, central Johannesburg. "I remember when I was a player how it felt being cooped up in a hotel for just two days," he said before the tournament.



They have advanced steadily, if not spectacularly, towards last night, though the free spirit in the side appeared to have been vanquished when real opposition surfaced. If England's domination of a poor World Cup qualifying group can be seen in its true perspective, so could Holland's at the top of a group in which they only conceded twice – to Macedonia and Iceland.



The real state of the defence was exposed when Luis Fabiano drifted into a deep lying role and Johnny Heitinga was lured into following him, leaving the gaping hole through which Melo threaded the 60-yard ball that Robinho latched on to and swept home. The weakness was reinforced as Robinho jinked around two defenders and eased in the ball to Fabiano which, one effortless flick later, was ready for Kaka to curl in the 22-yard shot which was superbly tipped away by Maarten Stekelenburg. That's the same Stekelenburg – the first choice since Edwin van der Sar's retirement – whose uncertainty at crosses had created a concern but who reached beyond expectations when his moment came.



It meant that half-time arrived with a narrow deficit and that the Dutch creative forces still had a part to play. Robben started to cause worry to Michel Bastos and then began Sneijder's own extraordinary contribution; one that might have ended with a hat-trick. One of that "famous four" he might be, but the indignity of a free transfer from Real Madrid to Internazionale – to allow Kaka and others in through the front door – is firmly in the past today.



Robben, who departed through the Bernabeu tradesman's entrance too, also felt he had something to prove at this tournament. It was he who waited back to intercept Kuyt's euphoric lap of the stadium last night. They left the arena as equals, with a real belief that a final lies in wait.