SALVADOR, Brazil – Dutch soccer constantly remembers a past it would sometimes like to forget. The nation that sends an orange-clad army every time its chosen few seek international glory is locked in a weird paradox when it comes to the game it adores.
Based on population, the Netherlands should never have gotten close to winning the World Cup and should probably be glad just to have qualified this or any other time.
But given the number of occasions the country has gotten close to the biggest prize of all, the amount of mind-blowingly brilliant players it has produced and the fact it revolutionized the sport generations ago, three runners-up spots don't really cut it.
That is why there was delight and delirium but also something held in reserve as the Dutch celebrated their emphatic and magnificent 5-1 annihilation of a Spain team that is still hoping to prove it is the same outfit that won the last World Cup and is regarded as one of the best ever.
Robin van Persie told reporters in the interview area of the stadium. "For us, this is a dream come true and we have to enjoy it – everyone in Holland must, too."This is incredible and inexplicable,"
"This is because of the coach, Louis van Gaal. He has prepared us great and he predicted how the game would go. It's incredible, because it was exactly as he and the staff predicted for us."
Then, as if he had forgotten himself, he qualified his comments. "It was a great day we have to keep going," he added. "We can't stop here."
The Netherlands has been hurt too many times to go over the top following one victory however much it looked like a signal of intent and, in all honesty, the performance of a team capable of winning it all.
Dutch folk still harbor the nagging fear they suffer from a World Cup curse. It is going to take a lot to persuade them otherwise.
[Video: Netherlands shocks defending champ Spain in opener]
The country's loyal followers have seen stunning individual matches before, just as good as the 90 minutes of near perfection conjured by van Persie and Arjen Robben and a cast of able cohorts under van Gaal's tutelage at the Arena Fonte Nova on Friday.
And they ended in disappointment of the cruelest kind. In the mid-1970s, Dutch soccer was the coolest, hippest, most aesthetically pleasing craze in the game. Johan Cruyff was a new kind of superstar, a European player with an array of tricks and footwork technique that had never been seen.
Cruyff would likely be considered alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as one of the greatest players in history had he added a World Cup to his resume, instead of sitting just behind them with a small collection of other players.
Argentina ended up as the victor. Had Rob Rensenbrink found the net instead of the post in the final minute of regulation, the Cup would have had orange ribbons on it.The closest he and the Netherlands got was back-to-back finals in 1974 and '78, coming up short both times against host nations. First, it was West Germany who found an efficient way to stymie Cruyff and eke out a narrow 2-1 win in 1974. Four years later,
It was a long wait to get back to the final, but it happened four years ago. Yet that was perhaps the worst cut of them all. Netherlands didn't just lose to Spain – 1-0 thanks to Andres Iniesta's extra-time winner – but it didn't even try to match it with coach Bert van Marwijk adopting a rugged, ultra-physical style that basically admitted his team was outgunned.
Not so with current boss van Gaal, a man who has coached in Spain with Barcelona and who outdueled the Spanish, stifling their possession, and executing the kind of dagger-like counterattacks that won Spain the 2010 title.
The Dutch, who some felt might struggle to get out of Group B, now sit among the tournament favorites. Based on Friday, they belong there. Van Persie and Robben are two of the best in the business and there are other players maybe just waking up to their promise.
Like Daley Blind, who set up the first two goals. Or Canadian-born Jonathan de Guzman, who was replaced after an hour but who stood firm against the insanely talented Spanish midfield.
In theory, things should be comfortable for a while. While Spain and Chile prepare for their Group B showdown that figures to decide second place in the pool, the Netherlands go from facing one of the toughest opponents possible to one of the easiest, the plucky but overmatched Aussies.
Winning this group, by no means certain but well within the Dutch reach, would likely mean avoiding Brazil in the round of 16 and set up an infinitely easier route to the latter stages.
[Related: van Persie header a thing of beauty]
But the gnawing doubt over whether this is another false dawn won't be silenced yet. Because maybe this is as good as it will get. Perhaps the curse lives on.
Maybe, just maybe, it doesn't. Let's not kid ourselves, there is a long way to go. Most of the teams in the tournament haven't even kicked a ball in anger yet, and no one – not unlucky Croatia, not disappointing Australia (OK, well maybe) and, yes, those Spaniards too – has been eliminated.
The men in orange have arrived, though. And they plan on writing a new chapter in national history.
- Sports & Recreation