Jim White

Dutch earned spot fairly but they do not hold Europe’s best hope

Jim White

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It was a horrible, painful end of the World Cup for Mexico in the steaming heat of Fortaleza on Sunday. It was cruel indeed for Miguel Herrera’s disciplined, determined, progressive side to be dispatched by two such late, late goals. They had played an exemplary game in conditions which – according to the local measure of such things – were hotter than Gisele.

But one thing is certain: they have not been cheated of the chance to progress. The penalty which saw them eliminated was neither the result of a pan-European refereeing conspiracy nor of subterfuge. It was just a penalty. One of those cruel things that happen in competition, but a penalty nonetheless.

I heard at least one pundit since the game, however, suggest that retrospective action should be brought to bear on Arjen Robben after his tumble in the Mexican area that gained the penalty and he should suffer the same punishment as Luis Suarez. Which is self-evidently piffle of the highest order. Robben was fouled, the referee blew the whistle, Mexico are out. That is the plotline in its entirety.

For sure Robben made the most of it. He milked Rafael Marquez’s challenge like Daisy the cow. He was perhaps determined that this time the referee would not miss such a challenge as he somehow done in the first half when Marquez and Hector Moreno did a double assault on the Dutchman, one in which poor Moreno fractured his shinbone. This time Robben wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He gave it his best Tom Daley. He flew through the air,

But I repeat he did not cheat. Marquez caught him. The contact may have been minimal, it may even have been sought by the forward, but it was there. This is what Robben does to opposition teams: he presents them with a problem in the box every time he carries the ball into it. They know if they don’t intervene, he will punish them with a goal. They know if they do, they risk sending him flying as if from the ten metre board. Sure, it is much more endearing for a striker to attempt to stay on his feet when contact is made, like Sergio Aguero did so brilliantly in the last moments of the 2012 Premier League season. Had Robben been challenged like the Argentinian was that day, he would have thrown himself to the ground with both feet over his own head. And the referee would have been obliged to give a penalty.

Because this is the point, just because a player milks it, doesn’t mean a foul hasn’t occurred. And if a foul hasn’t taken place, then the referee has the power to book the diver for his subterfuge. On this occasion there was no need to book Robben, because he had been fouled.

And so Robben and Holland march on. Although in Robben’s case perhaps what he is doing is belly flopping on. Maintaining the European challenge, they are joined in the last eight by France, Germany and Belgium.

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Of that quartet, it is the French who look the most likely to advance. And nobody would have been saying that before the tournament. Like the Dutch, Didier Deschamps’ men look thin on paper but strong on the pitch. Unlike their most recent predecessors, the bunch who self-destructed in South Africa, they look a cohesive, together side. Oddly benefitting from the absence of their one world class component Franck Ribery, a man who can bring down the most cheerful of occasions, their team spirit looks exemplary. Their celebratory group huddle after their second goal against Nigeria was indicative of a team playing together for each other and for their coach.

This looks, too, an unusually cohesive Dutch side. The egos appear to be under control. Well, at least on the pitch. On the bench, smugness abounds. Corralled Louis Van Gaal, micro-managing them every step of the way, issuing instructions with the water bottles, they have looked a more than useful operation so far. For Manchester United fans, self-congratulatory Van Gaal may be, but the sight of a manager making the most of his resources and quickly tailoring his tactical approach to circumstances (he changed formation three times against Mexico) is something that will come as a pleasant surprise after the woeful inertia of the Moyes era.

As for the Germans, well any side with a midfield of Schweinsteiger, Ozil, Khedira, Kroos and the incomparable Lahm should be doing well.

We have already enjoyed from Brazil a daily feast of attacking prowess, last second goals, nerve-tangling tension, surprises and more incident than an entire Premier League season. And now as the final stages hove into view, we have the prospect of four Latin American teams – Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica facing up to four Europeans in Holland, Germany, France and Belgium. If we had any doubt before we can now be certain: this is shaping up to be the best World Cup of all time.

Jim White (on Twitter: @jimw1)

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