SAO PAULO - If the past is any guide, we should be in for something memorable on Wednesday in Sao Paulo when the Netherlands meet Argentina in the World Cup semi-final at the Corinthians arena.
In their four World Cup meetings the two nations have produced some unforgettable football, leaving Lionel Messi and Robin van Persie with plenty to live up to.
Dennis Bergkamp’s sublime winning goal in the 1998 quarter-final is the standout individual moment and widely considered one of the most skillful finishes in a World Cup game.
The Netherlands' performance in their first meeting in West Germany in 1974 is viewed by some as the peak of collective skill. Led by two goals from Johan Cruyff, they dazzled with their passing and movement in a famous 4-0 win.
Four years later, the pair met in the World Cup final with hosts Argentina triumphing 3-1 in extra time on a ticker tape-covered field. That game is also remembered for the controversy before kick-off that threatened the game being abandoned.
The most recent encounter will be more easily forgotten. Eight years ago the pair played out a goalless draw in the final game of the group stage at the 2006 finals in Germany, having both already secured their place in the next round.
If hosts Brazil constantly have to live up to the memories of their 1958 and 1970 teams, the Dutch are harshly benchmarked against the mesmerizing ‘Total Football’ of Rinus Michels’ side in the 1970s. The meeting in Gelsenkirchen is viewed by many as the peak of that fluid form of play.
Cruyff opened the scoring in the 10th minute of the second round game, bringing down a clever pass from Wim van Hanegem and with the lightest of feet, rounding Argentine keeper Daniel Carnevali and slipping the ball home.
Ruud Krol’s fierce 25-metre drive made it 2-0 in the 25th minute and not even the pouring rain in the second half could halt the Dutch dominance as their players interchanged positions and passed the ball with a confidence and control that was unmatched in the game.
Cruyff, who strutted through the match imperiously, set up the third in the 75th minute with a perfectly weighted cross from the left which was headed in by Johnny Rep at the back post and then completed the rout in the final minute with a drive from a tight angle.
The brilliant Dutch team were to be beaten 2-1 by hosts West Germany in the final but four year later they were back in the final – again facing the hosts, although without Cruyff.
The start of the game was controversially delayed as Argentina objected to a plaster cast on the arm of Rene van der Kerkhof, even though he had played in that condition earlier in the tournament.
For some tense minutes it looked as though the game might not even start as the Dutch dug in over Van der Kerkhof, but after some rather pointless, additional bandaging was added the match got under way in front of a passionate Buenos Aires crowd who had covered the field with ticker-tape.
Argentina striker Mario Kempes, who had watched the crushing four years earlier from the bench, opened the scoring, sliding the ball home seven minutes before halftime.
Goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol kept Argentina’s lead intact with some excellent saves but with the hosts just eight minutes away from celebrating their first World Cup triumph, substitute Dick Nanninga headed in an equalizer to force extra time.
Kempes scrambled in his sixth goal of the tournament to restore the lead and five minutes from the end he charged into the area. The ball fell to Daniel Bertoni who secured the victory and left the 1970s Dutch with the unwanted title of the greatest team never to win the World Cup.
It was 20 years before the two teams were to meet again in the 1998 quarter-finals in Marseilles, France.
Patrick Kluivert, assistant coach of the current Dutch team, opened the scoring and then the impish Claudio Lopez, Gabriel Batistuta’s clever strike partner, leveled.
The game was decided in the 90th minute by a moment of pure brilliance – Bergkamp bringing down a superbly delivered long pass from Frank de Boer and in one sublimely smooth movement, slipping inside of Roberto Ayala and finding the net with the outside of his right foot.
There have been more spectacular goals but for technical skill and awareness allied with the deft finish, Bergkamp’s goal is hard to match.
With Messi and Van Persie on the field on Wednesday, we might just be in luck.