World Cup 2014: Dutch survive the furnace of Fortaleza
In the pressure cooker heat of Estadio Castelao, one man kept his cool.
Coach Louis van Gaal could see the Netherlands were wilting, the life ebbing out of their World Cup in temperatures of 39C and in the face of Mexican resilience.
Van Gaal's team were trailing 1-0 to Mexico in their last-16 tie but he saw an opportunity to breathe life back into Dutch hopes and took it.
Such was the intense heat in Fortaleza on Brazil's north-east coast that Fifa had approved the use of cooling breaks for the first time.
Nor was staying cool a problem restricted to the players. The heat in the stadium had been so severe that thousands of fans were unable to take their designated seats because they were in direct sunlight. But as the shadows grew longer, they crept forward from their shaded positions at the back of stands to get a closer view of the unfolding drama.
The second cooling break came with 15 minutes remaining, and by then one team clearly needed it more than the other.
The Netherlands squad crowded around their manager, like basketball players in a time-out. In the centre Van Gaal was speaking, his players listening. He pointed to a clipboard in his hand, indicating a tactical change that might not be for the purists but would win them the game. The Netherlands had trained for this moment.
They had begun the day playing 5-3-2, then switched to 4-3-3, and Van Gaal was about to play his final card. Dirk Kuyt, winning his 100th cap, had started as a left wing-back, been moved to right-back and was now being told to play up front. Robin van Persie was taken out of the action, on came Klaas Jan Huntelaar. This was, to all intents and purposes, 4-4-2.
"This manager wanted to win - I had to substitute Robin," said Van Gaal. "The cooling break allowed me to move to another plan. We had trained this way, Huntelaar and Kuyt as strikers, playing long balls to them."
It was a long way from the "total football" made famous by the Dutch in the 1970s, but as their 2014 campaign threatened to unravel, the moment called for something different.
|When is a cooling break implemented?|
|Whether a game qualifies for a cooling break will be decided an hour before kick-off when Fifa's venue medical officer will consult the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature, a composite measure used to estimate the effects of such conditions on humans.|
|If it reads over 32C (89.6F), it is likely players will be allowed to take on fluids after both 30 and 75 minutes, but the match clock will not stop. Cue lots of sweaty managers pointing at watches to make sure the time is added on after 90 minutes.|
"He is one of the best, or maybe the best tactically," Kuyt said. "It doesn't matter what system we are playing we know exactly what to do. He told us before the game already that we could switch to this system when we were 1-0 down."
The players turned away, threw off the ice towels, put down the drinks and walked back onto the field with a new sense of purpose. Within minutes Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa somehow kept out Stefan de Vrij's close-range volley from a corner, pushing it against the post with an instinctive blur of his hands.
"Their goalkeeper made some unbelievable saves," said Dutch defender Ron Vlaar. "Then we got another corner kick and Wesley [Sneijder] said to me this one is going in. I don't think he thought he would score but it happened."
It was Huntelaar's header that made it, Sneijder pouncing on the loose ball to thump in the equaliser with five minutes left. Now belief drained from Mexico hearts.
The Netherlands could sense a chance. "After that I had a feeling we could win in 90 minutes," Vlaar added.
There was still time. Still time for Robben to sprint down the right flank once more. The Bayern Munich winger cut inside, skipped beyond Diego Reyes and went over Rafael Marquez's leg. Penalty. Joy and despair in one moment.
Huntelaar did the rest from 12 yards, dispatching the penalty to set up a quarter-final against Costa Rica. "Robben had been fouled, so Klaas Jan was asked, he didn't need any more encouragement. He was very cool," Van Gaal said.
He was not the only one. Van Gaal watched on as Robben leapt in the air, clenching his fists at the final whistle and the Dutch fell to the ground with pure relief. This was Van Gaal winning a match in Fergie time - an appropriate prelude to taking over the Manchester United job.
"The players showed they had the faith and the belief to go right to the very end," added Van Gaal, hinting at their willingness to buy into his tactical tweaks. "You can't pull through like that if you don't have the unity that this group of players had. It gives us enormous confidence to go on."
The contrast with the Mexico players was stark. Those in green collapsed, overwhelmed by the manner of the turnaround, the heat, the emotion of a day when a place in the last eight for the first time since 1986 had been within their grasp.
Mexico may have stumbled their way to this World Cup but they leave with their reputation and that of their manager, the tremendous Miguel Herrera, enhanced.
|The Netherlands' possible path to the final|
|Quarter-final||Costa Rica||Saturday, 5 July|
|Semi-final||Argentina/Switzerland/Belgium/USA||Wednesday, 9 July|
|Final||Brazil/Colombia/France/Nigeria/Germany/Algeria||Sunday, 13 July|
Ochoa trudged into the news conference to collect his man of the match award and forced a smile, but it was clear he was crestfallen. This was not a footballer who deserved to be on the losing side.
Mexico may have been more used to the heat but Herrera still felt it had affected his team.
"What goes against football is playing in this weather," he said. "We didn't see a worthy show because even such a good team as Netherlands, the temperature sapped their pace. You can't give at the same level in the 90 minutes in that heat. You are suffocated by the sun, the humidity, by being worn out."
The heat aside, this was another tremendous match in a World Cup that remains as unpredictable as any.
Van Gaal ensured his side march on. "He knows what it is going to happen," Vlaar said. "If it doesn't happen that way, he changes it and that gives the players confidence. We know we have a manager capable of changing something, of changing the course of a match."
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