By Louis van Gaal’s own admission, the Netherlands have a score to settle with Argentina. It was in Sao Paulo eight years ago that a tight and tense World Cup semi final failed to produce a goal and went all the way to penalties. The Dutch fluffed their lines and Argentina made it to the final.
That defeat signalled the end of Van Gaal’s first spell in charge of the national team. “I don’t like to think about it,” Van Gaal said this week. But he now does have to think about Argentina and the prospect of preventing them reaching the semi finals this time around.
On Friday he has the chance to send those demons packing and help create a glorious victory which the Netherlands haven’t had for some time.
A meeting of the Netherlands and Argentina evokes memories beyond that clash in Brazil. There have been famous goals and matches along the way. There was Denis Bergkamp’s stunning quarter-final winner at the 1998 World Cup. Dutch fans of a certain vintage get misty-eyed over memories of Johan Cruyff masterminding their 4-0 demolition of the South Americans in 1974. Yet are keen to forget their 3-1 extra-time defeat in the final four years later.
Van Gaal tried to dampen such romanticism on the eve of their latest meeting. The Dutch manager quickly pointed to the more defensive nature of modern football and the distillation of some games into moments which teams must grab — something that his own team have become adept at on their way to the last-eight.
Memphis Depay, the scorer of one of Netherlands’ eight goals so far this tournament, said that it could take a moment of magic to separate the sides at the Lusail stadium. “[Bergkamp’s goal] was an amazing moment for the country, and what a goal,” Depay said. “This game will be decided by moments. We believe we can catch a moment and go through.”
His manager, sat alongside, nodded and added: “Football is no longer being played as it was in 1998 or 1974 or whatever. Then it was an open game which it no longer is. Football has evolved but it is always possible, as Memphis has said, to have decisive moments that you remember years later, like Bergkamp’s goal.”
This latest encounter with Argentina could signal the end of Van Gaal’s second coming. Having taken on the manager’s role out of a sense of duty last year, he will step down after this World Cup with Ronald Koeman due to start work in the new year.
“I’m only doing this for the country, it was an emergency situation and I committed to that,” he said. “But you never say never. We had a wonderful example in Dick Advocaat. He is older than me and recently took a job [at ADO Den Haag].
“If I am presented with a wonderful challenge it could well be I continue to work but I’m 71, even though I look marvellous.”
Messi has dragged Argentina to quarter finals
If this isn’t to be Van Gaal’s final act on the world stage, then it will most likely be Leo Messi’s last hurrah. The prospect of a semi final, against either Brazil or Croatia, seemed a long way away when Argentina lost their group opener to Saudi Arabia. But since then Lionel Scaloni’s team have scored six goals and conceded only one. Messi has been at the forefront.
“We prepare for this match the same way we prepared for all the others,” Scaloni said. “Of course there is anxiety, we want the game to start right now. After five or six days we are eager to play but we are calm. I know the team will break their backs as they have done in the previous games.
“Sometimes we have played well, sometimes not, but we have always faced our opponents. That’s what our people value the most. We know we will give it all on the pitch. Sometimes football can be beautiful. Sometimes football can be cruel.” A sentiment Van Gaal will surely echo.