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World Cup Pass & Move: The Falling Dutchman

The Dutch masters, James Rodríguez, the nail-biting shootouts, and the controversial penalties.

The first weekend of knockout action is in the books. Here’s a look back at some of the most interesting games, emerging themes, eye-catching moments, and standout players.

The Art and Science of Refereeing

Mike L. Goodman: Refereeing a soccer game is more art than science. It has to be. One man and two assistants on the sideline are tasked with judging the severity of every single thing that happens on a soccer field. As their guide, they have FIFA’s rulebook, which is short on absolutes and long on judgment calls. Referees aren’t perfect. They can’t be, and quite often they aren’t even good. Usually, you’re just left hoping their mistakes aren’t game-defining. Every ref has his own tolerance for various degrees of quasi-legal activity, and the good ones remain consistent throughout. This also means that even the best refs deviate from the rulebook. Hopefully, they do so in the same ways, over and over again.

That brings us to this weekend and some of the biggest decisions yet in the tournament. The major one, of course, was the penalty call in the final minutes that sent Mexico home. The call itself was exceedingly close. Often, when a defender plants his leg like Rafa Márquez did, it’s an invitation for a penalty. At the same time, the contact was minimal. And all of that is further muddled by the recipient of that contact, the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben, being about the most notorious flopper playing the game. It’s probably a penalty by the letter of the law, but even so, it’s certainly close. Sometimes that’s not a given.

And that’s the problem. Over the course of the game, the referee had been extremely lenient. There were only 20 fouls called in the match. This World Cup has averaged just more than 29 fouls per match (stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info). The Netherlands, incidentally, has committed the second-most fouls in the tournament, averaging 19 per game; the team was whistled for eight against Mexico.

Now, some of that surely has to do with a slower-paced game played in exceedingly hot conditions. Some of it might have to do with foul machine Nigel de Jong coming off early because of injury. But on the whole, Portuguese referee Pedro Proença seemed content to swallow his whistle, doing so even when Robben went down in the penalty area at the end of the first half — when replays appeared to show two Mexican players fouling him (one of them, Héctor Moreno, broke his leg in the process).

That’s an interesting backdrop to the fateful moment, and it illustrates just how complicated it can be to determine whether something is a penalty. The referee is justified (although given the level of discretion left to him, not required) to call the Robben incident a penalty. But given how he’d called the rest of the game, it wasn’t in keeping with that rhythm. In a sport that depends on referees to be consistent, the call certainly felt like a departure from what had come before.

Oranje Crush

Chris Ryan: Wesley Sneijder has been the forgotten superstar on this Netherlands team. Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have grabbed the headlines, and Daley Blind and Memphis Depay have gotten noticed as young stars on the rise. But we forgot about Sneijder: impossibly tan, notoriously difficult in the locker room, playing out the club football string in Turkey after a Manchester United move that never happened. He is a remnant of a perhaps more elegant, less direct time in Dutch football. While Robben and RvP steam forward on the counter, Sneijder is the type of player to move in figure eights — his passes don’t kick down doors; they unlock them.

Or not. Above is probably my non–James Rodríguez goal of the tournament. Just the Guillermo Ochoa–myth-busting violence of it, to say nothing of the here-I-come-to-save-the-day timing. You want to play more direct? Here. Now we play direct.

Total Football

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Ryan O’Hanlon: “Dirk Kuyt played left wing back. Dirk Kuyt played right full-back. Dirk Kuyt played center forward. Dirk Kuyt won a corner kick that led to a tying goal. Dirk Kuyt ran 6.7 miles. The Netherlands won. And Dirk Kuyt’s essence dissolved up into the atmosphere and down into the ground. The air you breathe, the ground you’re standing on, the non-processed food you eat — it’s all Dirk Kuyt.” —Anonymous, untitled Dutch fable (2014)

Did Dirk Kuyt even play all that well against Mexico? I’m not sure — but as has always seemingly been the case, that he’s even playing is a small triumph. As a 24-year-old, Kuyt scored 36 goals in a season for Feyenoord. Then he became a fan favorite, a maniac outside midfielder for Liverpool. And now, at age 33 and in the Brazilian heat, he’s a wing back for one of the World Cup favorites.

There’s a way to look at his game against Mexico (his 100th cap, no less) and see it as a nice encapsulation of Total Football — one man, draped in orange, playing nearly every position on the entire field. But as Johan Cruyff once said: “I represent the era which proved that attractive football was enjoyable and successful.” Watching Kuyt play is “attractive” the same way your dad riding a mountain bike up a steep driveway might be. The professional personification of everything you were told by all the volunteer parent coaches you had as a kid, Kuyt is the best player in the world at “trying really hard.”

And yet, by having Kuyt on the field — less a Swiss Army knife, and more a really sturdy spoon that you can do anything with if you’re just persistent enough — the Dutch were able to cycle in and out of a number of formations as they shifted Kuyt from left to right to up top, eventually finding a configuration that worked after a first half with zero shots on goal. Maybe he’s not a typical product of that (outdated) Dutch ideal, but after all, Total Football — everyone on the field being able to do anything on the field — is the most extreme version of “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” isn’t it?

Just listen to Cruyff. As he said of Kuyt in 2010: “Someone like that is worth his weight in gold.” Four years later, Kuyt might be worth a tiny bit less; you sweat out a lot of water in 102-degree weather.

A Tale of Three Ricochets

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Graham Parker: A FIFA-sanctioned goalpost is no more than five inches thick. During Saturday’s games, three ricochets off such posts changed the trajectory of the games for the teams involved:

Mauricio Pinilla

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Brazil-Chile, last minute of extra time. Both teams seemed resigned to penalties when Chile’s Mauricio Pinilla looked up from outside the Brazil box and sent a shot dipping wickedly toward goal. For a split second, as it bypassed a flailing Júlio César, it looked like it was going in — only to shudder the crossbar and arc clear. But in this moment, with seconds left, Chile came close to beating Brazil in Brazil. And Brazil almost lost its first competitive game in its own country since 1975. The wave of emotion, patriotism, fanaticism, and not-quite-mass-belief that the team would win again — all of which were unleashed the first moment this team sang the national anthem against Croatia — came within inches of screeching to a traumatic halt.

Instead the ball bounced clear. You’re tempted to say Brazil survived, but on the evidence of the Chile game, its national torment just got prolonged.

Gonzalo Jara

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(via @FlyByKnite)

The penalty shootout of that same game. My wife had been walking past a café and seen a projected image of the haunted faces of the Brazilian players in slow motion, in HD, several of them apparently on the verge of tears. She called me: “Did Brazil lose?”

“No, they just can’t win.”

Yet somehow, after a broken Willian was half-shepherded, half-fireman’s-carried back to the center circle after his penalty miss, and Hulk’s shot cannoned back off Claudio Bravo’s legs, Brazil was still alive. Neymar stuttered up to score his penalty, and with the final kick of the shootout, Chile’s Gonzalo Jara’s kick went off the inside of the post.

There was another split second, for those watching on TV, as the screen flattened the ball’s trajectory — Is it flying back across the goalmouth or heading for the opposite corner of the net? The net didn’t move. Neither did Jara …

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Chile, having briefly terrorized Brazil like the band of pirates Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli claimed the team was, was left in the wake of that rogue Brazilian wave — all the more potent for the collective knowledge that its momentum could yet break short of the Maracanã.

James Rodríguez

Colombia-Uruguay. The latter’s besieged sense of victimhood over the Luis Suárez affair somehow set the dominant, stifling tone as the Uruguayan defense and midfield managed to stay on top of Colombian starlet James Rodríguez for nearly the first half hour. Nearly.

In the middle of the first half, turned away from goal, Rodríguez took a headed ball onto his chest. As it dropped, he pivoted perfectly to his right, with just the briefest of range-finding glances toward goal. Five Uruguay players closed on him as the ball dropped.

All of his movement took place in one fluid moment that ended with his perfectly balanced shot on the volley. It went straight over the leaping Fernando Muslera, in the Uruguay goal, off the bar and in.

Sometimes shots that go in off the woodwork seem lucky. You can’t help thinking of that five inches, and how the ball could just as easily have bounced elsewhere. That second of doubt about where it’s going stalls the sheer momentum, not just of the shot but of your instinctive reaction to it. Had Jara’s penalty gone in off the post against Brazil, it would have felt like that.

But the Rodríguez goal had an inevitability about it from the second he took that little peek. The sharp ricochet down off the bar looked more like calculated insult added to injury than a kind bounce. It looked like it couldn’t have finished any other way.

The thing is, for a split second before it bounced away into the footnotes of “what if?” you’d have said the same about Pinilla’s shot in the dying seconds against Brazil. It looked like it had been hit by the forces of history. But it missed, and Brazil’s collective adventures on the edge of a precipice continue. Inches.

Thoughts While Watching Brazil Triumph on a JumboTron at the Maracanã

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Spike Friedman: In no particular order …

• The dominant emotion among Brazil supporters in the arena at the start of extra time was despair. Middle-aged men, moved by the tension, would stand up and wave dismissively at nothing before sitting back down. A nearby cadre of Uruguayan supporters jumped onto the side of Chile and started mixing in anti-Brazilian songs with their array of pro-Suárez chants. These would reverberate around the stadium before being anxiously booed into nonexistence by the overwhelming Brazilian support in the audience.

• Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the stadium, a volunteer usher was still celebrating Hulk’s handball goal. After it was waved off, I leaned over to an old Colombian man and said, “Fucking Howard Webb, eh?” He replied, “Fucking Howard Webb,” which apparently is a phrase that transcends language.

• Neymar’s popularity in Brazil is astounding. Brazilians see the 22-year-old’s ceiling as limitless and his floor as Kaká. This is 2005 Kaká we’re talking about, by the way. I can’t quite think of an American analogue for the ease with which Neymar commands himself, both on camera and on the field, under massive national scrutiny. Maybe if a young Tom Brady played like a midcareer Tom Brady, it would look something like Neymar? Maybe if Mike Trout looked like Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Maybe we don’t get a package that looks like Neymar in America. We get Peyton Manning’s somewhat misshapen, doofy, hardworking charm. I guess that makes sense.

• Thiago Silva and Oscar are also generally well thought of, but no one else currently starting for Brazil enjoys anything resembling universal popularity. The Chelsea duo of Ramires and Willian, and Bayern Munich center back Dante enjoy the stereotypical popularity of backup quarterbacks. People assume that manager Phil Scolari is intentionally being difficult by stubbornly keeping Hulk on the wing and not giving Ramires a chance to shine. It’s a sentiment I readily agree with half of. Also, Tottenham is blamed for ruining Paulinho, who starred in the Confederations Cup while playing for Corinthians just a year ago. Blaming Spurs is a sentiment that also transcends language.

• There is a tension over the lack of belief around this team. Most people here think Brazil is capable of winning the tournament, but no one has the confidence to count out Colombia, the Netherlands, France, or Germany. That said, everyone appreciates the universal quality of the matches. A pride is bubbling around the success of the tournament, and even if Brazil were to lose, that would maybe, just maybe, be OK.

• Unless it loses to Argentina. As bad as it would have been had Brazil lost to Chile in the round of 16, nothing would be worse than losing to Argentina in a potential World Cup final. The antipathy toward Argentina is real, and it comes out at the slightest provocation. It’s a historical hatred, where Diego Maradona is still the villain while Lionel Messi is given grudging respect. But the hatred is there.

• And in the end, relief. Dismissive hand-waving was replaced by aimless fist-pumping. Most of the neutrals in the stadium, myself included, had jumped on Brazil’s side during the penalty shootout. (Only the Uruguayans, decked out in Luis Suárez kits, held out and cheered for Chile. It’s been a tough week to be Uruguayan.) I may have done so out of a sense of self-preservation, but I also feel this nation deserves to get to engage fully with this tournament for at least another week.

Purification in Extra Time

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Kevin Lincoln: There’s something sadistic about extra time. Watching Alexis Sánchez’s legs disintegrate as Chile labored through the additional 30 minutes against Brazil felt perverse; you don’t often get to see someone turn into a stick of Go-Gurt before your eyes. But like attending a sweat lodge or drinking whiskey from the bottle, extra time can also be purifying.

On Sunday, Costa Rica failed to put Greece away in regulation thanks to a few things: Óscar Duarte’s two yellows; a case of ref-specific blindness, which struck just as Vasileios Torosidis did a little boxing with the ball on defense; and Greece’s time-tested tactical approach of Playing With One More Guy Than Your Opponents. If you aren’t either Greek or Konstantinos Mitroglou’s barber, you were rooting for Costa Rica and well aware that the CONCACAF upstarts were by far the better side. But as soon as Sokratis Papastathopoulos slotted a rebound past Keylor Navas in stoppage time, even Greece’s leaking faucet of an attack seemed like it would be enough to score again against the exhausted and outmanned Costa Ricans.

And yet. Through the two overtime periods, Navas played like a Pong paddle — if Keylor isn’t the most popular baby name in Costa Rica this year, then do the census again — and La Sele morphed from plucky underdogs to a Blessed Squad, the team that could where Mexico and Chile couldn’t. (Against Greece, rather than the Netherlands and Brazil, granted.) Now, Keylor Antonio Navas Gamboa will lead San José’s finest against the Dutch air force, and once again, if you aren’t pulling for Costa Rica, you’re on the wrong side of history.