The flying Dutchman, if there ever was one.
On 14th June 2014, Google Trends displayed a surge in searches across the world of the phrase, ‘the flying Dutchman’. The last Pirates of the Caribbean movie had been released three years back and the next wouldn’t be till three years later. This, had nothing to do with either. This was a flying Dutchman as closely embedded to reality as one has or will ever be.
With close to 50,000 people watching from the stands at Arena Fonte Nova and another eight million tuning in on television, Robin Van Persie scored a World Cup goal for the ages. Against the defending world champions.
A long through ball and a run that originated almost near the half-way line and ended with the Netherlands skipper flying to head the ball over the Spanish captain Iker Casillas, and in the back of the net.
In what was a repeat of the 2010 World Cup Final, Spain and Netherlands opened their campaigns in the next edition with the Group B meeting in Salvador. Spain were the defending World and European champions going into Brasil 2014. They had also been near perfect in the Confederations Cup a year ago, barring of course, the 3-0 brushing from the hosts in the final at the Maracana.
And so when Xabi Alonso scored from the penalty spot in the 27th minute, the script looked very similar to the ones international football had witnessed for the more than the past half a decade.
Under head coach, Vicente Del Bosque, Spain had mastered winning games by a single goal margin, their 2008 Euro Cup and 2010 World Cup Final wins being two of them. Tormenting their opponents by keeping hold of the ball for majority periods of play and giving it a name as sweet as Tiki-Taka. Spain had done the same for most of their 2014 World Cup opener as well. Except the fact their counterparts made the most of the 36% of match where they had possession of the ball.
It was only right to expect that Louis Van Gaal’s side needed something very special to get the better of this Spanish side after going 1-0 down against them. Special indeed it was from their number nine.
One can look at the goal as an isolated incident to suggest that Casillas, his defenders, in fact no one could have seen that goal coming. But that won’t be correct.
Van Persie had in fact made a very similar run off a similar long ball from Bruno Martins Indi from inside his own half minutes ago, only to smash the ball in the crowd behind the goal and be ruled offside.
The then 29-year old striker had been caught offside on more than one occasions in that very match and would go on to be the player who was caught offside more than anyone else at that World Cup.
That a central defensive duo as experienced as Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique couldn’t anticipate a similar run from the Dutch striker was tough to digest in 2014, but at the same time down to some Oranje brilliance.
In both instances, Pique is stationed near Arjen Robben, who played as the other forward in a 3-4-1-2 system for Netherlands on the evening. Spain had decided to man mark the two forwards with their two centre-backs, a plan that meant with a high pressing, a single good through ball would leave either of Van Persie or Robben one on one with Iker Casillas, a familiar sight on the night. And, this is how it hurt Spain the first time.
In the 44th minute left-wing back, Daley Blind receives the ball on the left channel near the half-way line. Van Persie has already started to make a run towards goal from behind Sergio Ramos. Pique is a good measure away from the two, opening a gap in between for the Dutch striker to run into.
Blind has seen this, and with another touch, he adjusted the ball and his body for a long pass into the Spanish box to set his captain one-v-one.
Van Persie has timed this run perfectly, with Pique still ahead of him but too far left of him as Blind makes the contact with the ball. A sublime through pass and run needed a finish for them to be worth a goal. A one touch finish? The Dutchman had scored a stunning volley goal off a Wayne Rooney through ball only months ago for Manchester United. So, why not?
The concept of a sweeper keeper wasn’t as universal then as it is now. But Casillas, who was already beyond his line when Blind played that ball, was nowhere near Van Persie to intercept or nowhere near his goal to stop what was coming. The then 33-year old stood waiting for the striker to make his move.
For the entirety of his run, the Dutch forward has barely had a look in the general direction of the goal as he saw the ball coming towards him. And with Ramos hurtling towards him, execution awaited.
“I saw Casillas standing a bit in front of the goal, so I decided to go for a loop,” Van Persie said afterwards.
Equal measures of incredible neck strength and headed placement was injected by the Dutch number nine as his headed ball sailed over Spain’s number one and into the goal.
— Fanzine (@Fanzine_com) June 13, 2022
1-1, and Spain have no answer. No answer to what just happened. No answer to what would go on to happen in the next half of the game.
Barely 24 hours into the tournament, the holders were beaten 1-5 in their first game followed by a 0-2 defeat at the hands of Chile and a group stage exit. And it all started with that Van Persie goal.
“It just could not have been more perfect. These kinds of goals are scored once in a lifetime.”
The words of the flying Dutchman himself sum up the magnanimity of it.