World Cup 2014: Three times a loser taking a toll on the Dutch

In the first of a five-part series in which big names of the game look back on past World Cups, Rafael van der Vaart tells John McAuley about the Netherlands’ heartbreaking finals defeat to Spain in 2010.

Spain defender Carles Puyol, right, celebrates next to Netherlands midfielder Rafael van der Vaart after Spain held on for a 1-0 win in the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa. Javier Soriano / AFP
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Nearly four years have elapsed since Rafael van der Vaart’s worst night in football, but the pain persists.

“Of course, because it means so much for everybody if you win the World Cup,” the Netherlands midfielder said. “People talk about it for many, many years. It was a big chance, but it wasn’t meant to be. It still hurts.”

Given that fractious 2010 World Cup final against Spain, the sustained suffering could be literal as well as metaphorical. Although unable to take part in his side’s shot at redemption in Brazil this month – last week Van der Vaart was ruled out with a calf injury – for the most part four years ago, he was at least spared the physical anguish.

Having begun each of the group matches in South Africa, Van der Vaart made way in mid-tournament for a rehabilitated Arjen Robben. He was therefore not introduced to the showpiece at Johannesburg’s Soccer City until the 99th minute, with a tense and tetchy match teetering at 0-0. He was given the captain’s armband.

With four minutes remaining, and the Netherlands reduced to 10 men following John Heitinga’s second yellow card, Spain finally broke their resistance. It was Van der Vaart, in the unfamiliar position as the last line of defence, who failed to connect with his clearance, leaving Cesc Fabregas to release Andres Iniesta on goal.

Iniesta took one touch, steadied himself, and drilled a half volley low past Maarten Stekelenburg, the Dutch goalkeeper. Van der Vaart, lunging at his Spanish counterpart, was a split second from blocking the shot. Spain had their first world title; the Netherlands’ wait would continue.

Amid Spain’s jubilation and Iker Casillas’s tears of joy at the trophy presentation, Van der Vaart stood below on the pitch, hands on hips, a few yards behind the rest of the defeated Dutch squad. He would rather have been anywhere else.

He hoisted his No 23 jersey over his face to conceal the torment. Even when he had retreated from the bright lights and the turmoil of a raucous Soccer City, he could not escape.

“You feel nothing,” Van der Vaart says. “You’re empty. In Holland, everybody was proud and there was a big celebration, but it’s different when you celebrate second place and not the first.”

For the Dutch, it was a familiar sensation. Long before Van der Vaart embarked on an international career stretching across 109 caps, the Netherlands had come just as close to conquering the world. Finalists in 1974 and 1978, they twice finished as runners-up. They were becoming the never-never-lands.

A European Championship victory in 1988 went some way to healing the wounds inflicted in West Germany and Argentina – the Netherlands lost both finals to the host country – but 2010 was another setback, another case of what might have been. But, as Van der Vaart reminds, the Netherlands have, for some time, punched above their weight.

In comparison to the five European countries to have lifted the World Cup – Germany, England, Italy, France and Spain – they have a significantly smaller population. They pluck from the baby pool.

So, while the near-misses gnaw at the country’s psyche, Van der Vaart searches for silver linings.

“Three times we’ve been beaten in the final, but I still feel we’re a small country,” he says. “We won the European Championship in 1988, and to get to three finals is quite good also. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning. We hope we can win one.”

During qualification, the Netherlands were bitten by the winning bug. The route to Brazil was so serene that it would not have registered on those picture-postcard windmills back home. It was a breeze.

The Dutch were Europe’s joint-top points scorers (28) alongside Germany, with a 2-2 draw with Estonia the only blemish. They scored 34 goals in 10 matches, second only to the Germans. They finished nine points ahead of the second-place team in their group, the joint-highest margin in the Uefa zone. Together with Italy, they were the first Europeans to book a place at the finals.

Yet this squad will be judged by their performance in Brazil. With Van der Vaart absent, Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie represent the Netherlands’ marquee names, but the latter two have just left behind frustrating club seasons. As of last month, Sneijder was not a given to make the final cut. Furthermore, along with Van der Vaart, Kevin Strootman, the influential Roma midfielder, has been ruled out of the tournament by injury.

The Netherlands will have to rely on a group of younger players, undoubtedly talented but untested. Bruno Martins Indi and Daryl Janmaat, the Feyenoord defenders; Jordy Clasie, their promising club teammate, or Daley Blind, the Ajax left-back, perhaps deployed in midfield. Dynamo Kiev’s Jeremain Lens or Feyenoord’s Jean-Paul Boetius on the opposite flank to Robben.

It is a transitional team, which would have made Van der Vaart’s role vital. However, the Dutch vice-captain prefers to look at it as glass-half-full: in his eyes, the class of 2014 is the perfect cocktail of experience and exuberance.

“We have a great team,” he says. “We have a lot of young players, new players, so when you compare with two years ago at the European Championships, the squad has changed a lot.

“But there’s still a few players there from 2010. You can feel the hunger is there. Qualification went quite decent – we took a lot of confidence from that – and we think now that maybe, with a bit of luck and if we play our own game, we have a good chance to reach the final, or win it. Let’s hope.”

With coach Louis van Gaal at its head, the Netherlands’ ambition carries considerable conviction. The Dutchman, set to return to club football with Manchester United immediately following the finals, has forged a reputation as a master tactician, a big-time manager more than capable of shouldering expectations.

As fortune would have it, the Netherlands have been drawn in Group B and open their World Cup, in Salvador on June 13, against Spain. Tough ties with Australia and the much-fancied Chile follow.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Van derVaart says. “Everybody talks about Spain because they’re the world and European champions, but Chile also have a great team and we can’t underestimate them. Australia will be tough, too.

“It’s going to be really hard work for us to come through. We have a lot of confidence, but it won’t be easy. There’s different conditions in Brazil, difficult conditions, so it’s going to be interesting.”

Of particular interest, of course, is that clash with Spain. Van der Vaart’s connection would have been both personal and professional: his mother, Lolita, was born in Cadiz, and he spent two seasons at Real Madrid beginning in 2008. And then there is the cold night in South Africa, nearly four years ago, used now to spur on the Netherlands this month.

“There’s the feeling you can reach something, that you can achieve something, and we were so close,” Van der Vaart says. “It still hurts. You never forget that moment. But when you get the second chance, then you have to grab it, to be there and to win it.”

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