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Updated: July 7, 2010 20:44 IST

Holland grateful for Van Brankhorst’s thunderbolt

Richard Williams
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Giovanni Van Bronkhorst's piledriver against Uruguay on Tuesday night helped Netherlands to reach their first World Cup final since 1978.
AP Giovanni Van Bronkhorst's piledriver against Uruguay on Tuesday night helped Netherlands to reach their first World Cup final since 1978.

An orange tide will be making its way to Johannesburg over the next few days, propelled by the force of the remarkable shot with which Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Holland's captain, scored the first goal in his side's victory over Uruguay last night.

In addition to the 20,000 fans said to have made the journey from Holland, some of them travelling overland in a variety of curious vehicles, quite a number of descendants of South Africa's original Dutch settlers — having started the tournament supporting Bafana Bafana and then switched to Ghana — appear to have reverted to the colours of their 17th-century ancestors in recent days.

As they marched along the Fan Mile, the orange horde outnumbered their Uruguayan counterparts by a factor of at least 100 to one. And that was how it seemed inside the stadium, too, although there were still blocks of empty seats for the first semi-final of the 2010 World Cup, a phenomenon unimaginable had this been a match between Brazil and Ghana, the teams who might otherwise have been keeping this appointment.

But a semi-final between two countries mustering a combined population of less than 20 million is enough of a phenomenon in itself, particularly when the smaller of them has won the trophy twice and the larger has twice been denied in the final. These two are used to punching far above their weight, and when Holland took the lead in the 18th minute it was with a goal good enough to win any World Cup ever held, a strike entirely out of keeping with the humdrum nature of the play preceding it. The equally surprising identity of the scorer, Van Bronckhorst, will have evoked memories among fans of Arsenal, whom he represented from 2001 to 2003.

This has not, when you think about it, been a great World Cup for members of Arsène Wenger's current squad. Those who belong to nations that did not qualify for the finals, such as Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin, or who were unexpectedly left out of teams that travelled to South Africa, like Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott, can perhaps count themselves lucky. At least they were not given the opportunity to perform as disappointingly as Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner, Cameroon's Alex Song and Mexico's Carlos Vela, and were not exposed to the ridicule endured by France's Bacary Sagna, William Gallas and Abou Diaby. Nor can Holland's Robin van Persie feel that he has yet made a mark on the competition.

But there was old Gio, discarded by Wenger seven years ago, putting his left boot firmly through the ball and smashing it from 41 yards past the fingertips of the flying Fernando Muslera. It was a goal good enough to rival that of Maicon in Brazil's opening match as the best scored by a full-back in this tournament.

Wenger bought Van Bronckhorst from Rangers for £8.5m and by selling him two years later to Barcelona for €2m he seemed to make it clear that he thought there was no mileage left in him, although the player went on to win two La Liga titles at the Camp Nou before returning to Feyenoord, his first big club. Perhaps Wenger should have hung on to him and made him captain when Patrick Vieira left, instead of using the armband to secure the loyalty of Thierry Henry. Bert van Marwijk, the architect of this new Holland, obviously thinks highly of a player who last night won his 105th cap.

Until he struck, Uruguay had been playing most of the watchable football. Holland's creative players tried to bring each other into the game but were constantly leaving their passes short, as if someone had fiddled with their tuning dials. There were flickers, but no more, from Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt, and not even that from Van Persie.

After Diego Forlán had equalised with a shot almost as adventurous as Van Bronckhorst's, Van Marwijk brought on Rafael van der Vaart for the second half to replace Demy de Zeeuw. The infusion of an extra attack-minded midfielder certainly added more life and coherence to Holland's attacks, and the two goals they scored in the 70th and the 73rd minutes seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to their opponents' hopes.

What they could not do was extinguish Uruguay's famous fighting spirit, which erupted in the closing minutes with Maxi Pereira's goal, the ensuing last-ditch attacks and the lively scuffle surrounding the referee after the final whistle. To be truthful, it was only in those moments that this contest achieved the crackling tension normally experienced at a World Cup semi-final. To become the first European nation to win the title outside their home continent, and to paint Jo’burg orange on Sunday night, Holland will almost certainly need to do better than this.

© Guardian News and Media 2010

Keywords: 2010 World Cup

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