Dutch coach van Gaal feels betrayed
Oranje turned yellow as unnamed duo declined to take first penalty during shootout
Louis van Gaal gambled on using his joker, but realised he had no aces left in the pack.
The Dutch manager reached the World Cup semi-final with an insouciant blend of strategic courage and breathtaking arrogance.
But when the moment came for his players to reciprocate, they retreated. They shrivelled in the spotlight. The nameless turned yellow beneath the Oranje.
Yesterday morning, van Gaal admitted that his template for victory was effectively smashed by circumstances beyond his control and those waving the white flag before the penalty shootout.
Holland's irrepressible manager had fashioned himself as the Superman of the sidelines in this tournament, coming to the rescue with one tactical masterstroke after another.
In the end, cowardice proved to be his kryptonite.
"The issue is that you have to score the first penalty. I asked two players to take the first one before I ended up with (Ron) Vlaar," he said yesterday morning.
A common theme at this World Cup has been comments being lost in the myriad translations that take place simultaneously and instantly during interviews. Quite understandably, there have been technical and linguistic glitches all month long.
But his comments were clarified. He approached two players and they turned him down. In that moment, his crumbling masterplan disintegrated.
Vlaar admirably stepped up, his selection determined by his resolute Man-of-the-Match performance at centre back. But Sergio Romero denied the brave defender and Holland were on their way out.
Even in defeat, van Gaal sought to take credit for another man's victory, claiming rather ludicrously that his coaching staff had reconditioned Romero to handle the rigours of top-flight football when he signed the Argentine goalkeeper for AZ Alkmaar in 2007.
The coach's team tinkering is second only to his straw clutching. But post-match revelations inadvertently vindicated his strange substitutions to a degree.
Relying on desperate measures to contain Lionel Messi, he picked men not fit for duty. Nigel de Jong gave him an hour before the midfielder's groin finally gave way and Robin van Persie threw up before kick-off.
Strangely echoing Ronaldo's mystery bug before the 1998 World Cup final but with half the hullabaloo, the Dutch striker's virus had clearly scooped out his insides. He was an empty shell of a superstar; an Oranje peel with no substance.
Van Gaal persevered for two practical, far-sighted reasons. A redoubtable, fearless penalty taker, van Persie was down for the opener. Statistics lean towards the side that convert their first penalty.
More pertinently, Jasper Cillessen underscored his own shortcomings from 12 yards. Consistency is king between the sticks during games, but the Russian roulette of spot-kicks favours the flamboyant.
Cillessen had failed to keep out any of the 16 penalties he had previously faced as a professional. Four more flew past him yesterday morning.
When he tried to emulate his No. 2 by eyeballing the Argentine penalty takers, he didn't intimidate. He embarrassed himself. He looked a poor man's Tim Krul. Imitation was the sincerest form of desperation.
Before the match, Krul had warmed up by facing penalties. He was going to be called upon again. He was van Gaal's preferred choice; the coach's only choice.
But van Persie's body betrayed both the skipper and the manager. Those who cowered in the shadows before the first penalty did the rest.
Illness robbed van Gaal of his chance to make the final substitution he craved.
But a minor mutiny in the Dutch ranks destroyed his final design for a World Cup masterpiece.