It could have all been so different. Members of the media had begun to wrap up their match reports with headlines such as ‘Mexico make it through’ and ‘Dos Santos ends Dutch dreams’. The thousands of votes cast by the fans through FIFA.com, as well as on twitter and the FIFA App had handed the Budweiser Man of the Match Award to Guillermo Ochoa, who looked to have inspired a famous win.
Yet there was a sting in the tail, as Louis van Gaal’s tactical switches eventually paid off. Having begun the game with a 3-4-1-2, the Oranje coach switched to a 4-3-3 and, as the game was ebbing away, a 4-2-4. He and his team had nothing to lose.
The match turned on the 88th minute, when the Netherlands equalised through Wesley Sneijder, leaving the Mexicans visibly shattered. In stoppage time, the comeback was completed when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made no mistake from the penalty spot after Arjen Robben had been felled.
For one player in particular, Dirk Kuyt, the match had particular resonance. It was, after all, the occasion of his 100th appearance for his country. The Fenerbahce man was utilised as a left wing-back, a right wing-back and a right-sided forward during the 90 minutes, and afterwards he praised the patience and character shown by the Dutch players.
“It’s amazing, a special day for me,” he told FIFA.com exclusively after the game. “To become the seventh player in the history of Dutch football to reach 100 caps, and to finish the game like that, is amazing. I’m a very proud person; I’m very proud of the team and the team spirit. We kept fighting until the end and we’re very happy with the result.
“In football, especially in tournament football and World Cup football, if you play in a stadium like this, sometimes it doesn’t matter how you play or what you do. It’s all about winning. That is what the team managed to do today. Mexico were tough opponents with a tough defence and some good strikers. It was difficult to create chances. So we had to be patient and keep fighting, and that’s what we did. We kept fighting, with three different kinds of systems, and we managed to do it.
“I think ultimately the difference between Mexico and ourselves today was down to individual quality. The team spirit of the two sides was amazing. But we have players like Robben and [Robin] van Persie in our team who can change the game at any second. Van Persie fought really hard in the game and was changed for Huntelaar, and he made the difference.”
The super-sub Huntelaar, who was stood next to Kuyt, beamed at this compliment from the senior member of the squad. “You dream of situations like this; it’s difficult to come back and then it happens,” he told FIFA.com. “Especially in a knockout match, it was really important for our team.
“We knew it was going to be difficult. They had an advantage with this type of weather, especially when it was 1-0 with two minutes to go. But you try to do your best and give everything. The corner came and I saw the ball coming but I couldn’t get it on goal, so I put it back into the box.
“I didn’t know if anybody was there, but Wesley was and he hit it perfectly. Then we started believing we could do it, and we got the penalty.”
What happened next was one of the day’s most memorable moments. As the Dutch celebrated and crossed their fingers, the Mexicans implored in vein for the officials to change their minds. Yet one man remained almost unaffected. Huntelaar bounced the ball like a basketball player, seemingly aloof to the chaos which was unfolding around him.
“I was trying to get my focus because everyone wanted to annoy me and get me to lose my focus,” he explained. “I was bouncing the ball to try to concentrate on what I had to do. I picked my corner and put the ball there. It went in. The feeling was incredible, a dream come true.”