If any World Cup team could be compared to an NBA team, the Netherlands are definitely that team. Their 2014 World Cup run is drawing serious parallels to the San Antonio Spurs’ run to the NBA title. The teams’ rosters and stories make them extremely similar.
First, both teams have veteran rosters full of guys who have been through all the battles before. While Holland is not an “old team” per say (their average age is 26, making them fairly young in the World Cup), they have 701 caps (international appearances) combined. The defense is young, but some of the key midfielders and forwards, like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder, are playing in their third World Cup. They’ve been through the trials and tribulations before; they know what games like today’s Round of 16 vs Mexico are all about.
Everyone knows the Spurs were the same way in this regard. They were the fourth-oldest team in the league this year, and while they had young contributors like Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills, their core group of players (Duncan, Parker and Ginobili) were going for their fourth ring together. The veterans had been through and seen it all in their NBA careers, making the Spurs a distinctly veteran team.
Every fan knows the Spurs’ championship story by now, coming back from a devastating loss in the 2013 Finals against the Heat and beating Miami in five games to win this year’s title. What casual soccer fans just catching World Cup fever may not remember is that last World Cup, Holland had a heartbreaking loss of its own in the Final.
The 2010 World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain was a heavyweight clash of undefeated teams in Soccer City, Johannesburg. These were definitely the two best teams in the tournament, and 84,490 fans were excited to see a champion be crowned.
The game was a very chippy affair, with the most yellow cards ever handed out in a World Cup Final. Regulation time was not enough to decide a winner, though both teams were certainly kicking themselves after 90 minutes of scoreless play, specifically the Netherlands. Arjen Robben (the “Tim Duncan” of Holland) had a breakaway in the 60th minute and was one-on-one with the goalkeeper, Iker Casillas. In what was definitely the best save of the tournament, Casillas was able to outstretch his leg just enough to deflect the shot wide. Robben stood with his hands over his head, clearly realizing the chance he had just missed. In that moment, Robben was just like Tim Duncan, who missed a point-blank, game-tying layup in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals when San Antonio had all the momentum. Both were devastating moments that neither will ever really forget.
In extra time, however, the heartbreak really occurred for the Netherlands. In the 109th minute, center back John Heitinga was given his second yellow card, meaning he was ejected from the game and the Netherlands was a man down for the rest of the match. Holland could only stave off Spain for seven minutes after that, and Andres Iniesta’s goal in the 116th minute of the match won it all for Spain.
Four years after the calamitous loss, the Netherlands team is on a mission similar to the mission the Spurs were on in the 2014 Playoffs. In the first game of the group stage, they got their revenge against Spain by destroying them 5-1. It looked exactly like the Spurs’ destruction of the Miami Heat, total domination by a team squarely focused on redeeming themselves and writing a new chapter. They won their next two games in thrilling fashion to win the group and head back to the Round of 16.
Today, it’s like a new tournament for the Dutch. If they want to continue their road to redemption, they must beat high-flying Mexico at noon. If they win today, they have three more games to win, ending with another World Cup Final like the one they lost four years ago.
We may have two championship redemption stories in 2014. This time, replace Duncan, Parker and Ginobili with Robben, van Persie, and Sneijder.