Cape Town, South Africa Arjen Robben emerged from the bottom of an Oranje mosh pit, mud on his brow and a smile on his face.
For good measure, he threw kisses at his teammates and fans. His goal gave the Netherlands a 3-2 victory over Uruguay and a spot in the World Cup final.
Now that’s a Dutch treat!
The big prize — that elusive first title — is still one game away. But this was such a moment to savor that most of the squad made a curtain call nearly an hour after the biggest Netherlands victory in decades, leading about 1,000 orange-clad fans in cheers that figure to last until Sunday.
That’s when the Dutch play either Spain or Germany for the championship of the world.
“If you win the final, you make yourself immortal, at least in our country,” Robben said. “We will do everything we can to take the Cup back.”
Long wasteful with its soccer talent, the Netherlands sure has found the right touch in this tournament.
Stars Wesley Sneijder and Robben scored three minutes apart in the second half as the Netherlands advanced to its first title match since losing in 1978 to Argentina.
“We are so close,” Sneijder said. “There is nothing bigger than the World Cup.”
And nothing better than sharing it with their countrymen.
So out came Robben, Sneijder and their teammates long after the final whistle, to join the celebration in an empty stadium — empty except for that rollicking section of fans still singing Dutch songs, waving flags, and bowing in unison. The players joined in from the field, several on the shoulders of others, some taking photos. Back home in Amsterdam, the victory touched off mass celebrations, too.
Winners of all six games in South Africa, 10 in a row overall and in the midst of a 25-match unbeaten streak, the Dutch have the look of champions — with an Oranje hue, of course.
“This is unforgettable,” said Sneijder, now tied with Spain’s David Villa for top scorer at the tournament (five goals). “It was a tough fight and toward the end we complicated matters.
“Sunday we play in the World Cup final. I have to get used to that.”
Besides the loss to Argentina in ’78, the Netherlands fell in its only other appearance in the final, to West Germany in 1974.
Both of those title-game defeats came during the golden period of Dutch soccer, and in the opposition’s homeland. No such worries this time, and no country outside of Africa has had as much fan support as the Netherlands.
Inside Green Point Stadium it looked like a Florida orange grove. Outside, a Netherlands fan in a blue and white bodysuit stood on stilts and played a vuvuzela — badly. It was about the only thing that didn’t measure up for the Dutch.
And a tournament that looked like a South American fiesta early on will end in a European showdown for the second straight World Cup. Sneijder and Robben made sure of that.
Sneijder’s goal came somewhat unexpectedly because Uruguay had shut down the Dutch offense for much of the second half. His left-footed shot from just inside the penalty area barely ticked the leg of defender Maximiliano Pereira and, with Robin van Persie almost deflecting it again, the ball skidded past goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
Then Robben sent a cross from Dirk Kuyt past a flat-footed Muslera with a brilliant header. His teammates piled on in an Oranje Crush celebration, and Robben came up from it muddied and merry — and with the knowledge that, ahead 3-1, the Netherlands was likely headed to the championship match.
Uruguay was without dangerous striker Luis Suarez, whose handball on the goal line in the final seconds of extra time against Ghana saved his team in the quarterfinals. He drew a red card for that, and spent his suspension on the bench watching his undermanned teammates come up just short.
Pereira made the Netherlands sweat with a goal in injury time, and Stekelenburg’s late save preserved the biggest Dutch win in decades. The Dutch have now won 10 straight and are unbeaten in their last 25 games.
Robben was replaced late in the match, and at the final whistle he fell flat to the turf as he ran back onto the pitch. Mark van Bommel hustled over to where the ball came to rest, picked it up and hugged it. His teammates then began a joyous stroll around the field, some of them barechested, as the vuvuzelas blared and Dutch flags waved in the stands.
“This is very special,” Van Marwijk said. “After 32 years we play the final again. Such a small country! We can be very proud of this.”
The Jabulani ball Van Bommel grabbed has been a source of criticism for its unpredictability, particularly the way it can soar. When Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, a true defensive halfback, puts one in from 30 yards off the far goalpost, well, let the debate begin again.
The Dutch captain gave his team the lead in the 18th minute, and the Oranje pressed for more, but when they let up slightly on defense, the superb Diego Forlan pounced. He was given far too much open space in the middle of the field and, from just under 30 yards, his left-footed drive went off goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg’s hand and into the net.
Stekelenburg was screened just enough by defender John Heitinga and didn’t get a good view of the ball until it was too late.
While several Dutch players threw up their hands in frustration, Forlan celebrated his fourth goal of the tournament with a suave wave of his arm. Suarez leaped off the bench in jubilation.
Forlan left in the 85th minute and coach Oscar Tabarez revealed after the match that his star played with a painful thigh.
“From minute one he had a problem,” Tabarez said. “I’m not dumb enough to take him out at 3-1 when the match wasn’t lost. He was injured and could not continue.”
Tabarez said the better team won.
“We did what we could, we accept the defeat,” he said. “We’re sad because even though nobody gave us a chance, we were close.”
Van Bronckhorst was in his accustomed role early in the second half when he headed a long shot by Alvaro Pereira away from the net after Stekelenburg was caught out chasing a stray back pass. And the Dutch defense was under siege in the final minutes as Uruguay sought to tie it.
The Celeste will head to Saturday’s third-place game, not bad for the last team to qualify.
But not nearly what they wanted. The Dutch and their fans have that.