“You only have to do one thing. Taking a penalty is really quite simple: you either miss it, or you score.”
Dirk Kuyt is, of course, quite right. The penalty kick – a free shot from 12 yards, with no defenders around and time to pick your spot – should be among football’s more straightforward tasks. In a FIFA World Cup™ shoot-out, though, it is anything but.
With a nation’s hopes resting on the taker’s shoulders, and the entire world watching, the pressure – as some of the game’s all-time greats will testify – can make the simple seem near-impossible. The Netherlands have a patchier history than most when it comes to these shoout-outs, and faced with a ‘keeper in Keylor Navas who had thwarted Greece in the previous round, they had plenty of reasons to be fearful.
Yet it was at this time, with all the omens seeming to favour Costa Rica, that the Oranje’s senior stars led by example. In the history of World Cup shoot-outs, there is unlikely to have been a better collection of spot kicks than those dispatched by Kuyt, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, all of whom proved nerveless and technically flawless. And despite all four having toiled tirelessly throughout the preceding 120 minutes, Kuyt told FIFA that weary legs were never likely to be an issue.
“To be honest, when it comes down to [taking the penalty], you don’t think about that,” he said. “You’ve just got so much adrenaline in your body. There’s a lot of pressure though, so you try to focus only on taking the penalty. Basically, you feel nothing, and in that moment it’s decided whether those 120 minutes of running have all been worth it or not.
“The players took the penalties very well, one by one, and then Tim [Krul] worked his magic. He was intimidating the opposition players and gave it his all. That’s part of the strength of this squad. We have 23 players and they’re all very good at what they do. Any time the manager needs them, they are there. We proved once again that we’re not doing it with only 11 players. We are all one team – one team with one goal.”
You feel nothing, and in that moment it’s decided whether those 120 minutes of running have all been worth it or not.
Dirk Kuyt of the Netherlands on taking a penalty in a shoot-out
Certainly, no other manager at Brazil 2014 has utilised his squad quite Louis van Gaal, with Krul the 21st of his 23 players to have participated. Only midfielder Jordy Clasie and Michel Vorm, the team’s third goalkeeper, have yet to see action, offering concrete evidence of a genuine collective effort. That in turn is helping to create a unity that has been evident in the team’s performances thus far, with Kuyt insisting that, even in being taken to penalties by Los Ticos, the Dutch still shone.
“Everything was there,” he said of the performance. “I think we played a very good game – the ball just didn’t want to go in. Normally, with the positions that our forwards were in, we would have scored five or six. But sometimes that happens in football.
“I’m just so proud of this team because we didn’t give up for a second, neither in regular time nor in extra time – and not at all during the penalties. I think we showed, during those 120 minutes as well as in the shootout, that we really wanted to win this game and continue to the semi-finals. And finally we got what we deserved.”
The Netherlands’ reward is an even tougher test – almost certainly their toughest yet – with Argentina awaiting in a Sao Paulo semi-final. And while La Albiceleste struggled against Belgium before eking out a drab 1-0 win, Kuyt is under no illusions about the threat that they pose.
“Argentina are a world-class team,” he said, “and they deserve to be in the last four. But we want to measure ourselves against the best, and not only measure – but win. That’s why we’re here. The semi-finals are fantastic but we know what it feels like to lose a World Cup, and we would love to win [the Trophy]. That’s our goal.”