Three of the top four in the 2014 World Cup were no surprise. Lionel Messi was so close, yet so far to his crowning glory, as Argentina fell in the final. A shell-shocked Brazil fell too, battered by a Germany side that won the tournament with typical efficiency and team spirit, becoming the first Europeans to win a Cup in South America. But the fourth team was the joker in the pack, one that few gave a chance going into the tournament. Netherlands and the wily Louis van Gaal spearheaded a surprise that provided plenty of moments. They were not special, but they didn’t need to be.

That they managed to finish third was largely due to the tactical change implemented by the obstinate van Gaal, who found a hole he couldn’t plug and implemented a system around it. Up until the tournament, Kevin Strootman had held the midfield together: he was the engine that kept play running, providing energy dynamism in both ends of the pitch. The ball-winner’s importance was immense, and his ACL tear two months prior to the World Cup was a hammer blow. So, with no one in Strootman’s mould to replace him, the manager shifted his side to a three-at-the-back system – one that was against traditional Dutch style. There was criticism over van Gaal’s insistence of deploying the opposite of Cruyffian ideals, but in hindsight, this was the best decision.

Drawn into a group with defending champions Spain, a vibrant Chile, and potential banana skins Australia, there was enough to justify why the Dutch wouldn’t qualify. They were runners-up to Spain in 2010, and so a Netherlands-Spain group opener was narrative-inducing in and of itself. They hit the Spaniards with an unfamiliar formation, and produced one of the great classics. This was nothing like the cagey final of 2010, remembered only for Nigel de Jong’s kung-fu tackle and Iniesta’s iconic goal.

The Dutch trampled on Spain’s party, hastening their early elimination from the tournament, a signal that tiki-taka could be combated. Daley Blind’s assist to Robin van Persie’s flying header is one of the all-time lasting images, a deft sonic blast that signalled the start of the World Cup. They hit five goals, with Iker Casillas’ embarrassment increasing with each goal. Arjen Robben was simply toying with him, and by the time Oranje were done, the Spanish era was left in smoke.

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They continued against Australia in an entertaining 3-2 win that provided another moment for the highlights reel, albeit from Tim Cahill’s equaliser. His first-time volley was stunning in its audacity, but the Dutch rallied to come back from 2-1 down. They followed that up to win 2-0 vs Chile, scoring two late goals. Netherlands topped their group with three wins – a wholly surprising chain of events, but fully deserved too.

In the wilting heat of Fortaleza, however, they struggled. Mexico proved to be a formidable Round of 16 opponent, leading 1-0 until the end of the game. But Wesley Sneijder conjured up a thumping strike, and then controversy struck. Robben went down in injury time, won a penalty, and watched as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar hit home to secure qualification. This was life before VAR; the Dutch were ecstatic, while the Mexicans were left distraught and aggrieved at what they saw was a dive from Robben.

There was more drama to come. They faced surprise package Costa Rica, a side which would prove tough to break down. Van Gaal reverted to a back three after playing four in their previous two games, but his side were unable to find a breakthrough. With penalties incoming, he made one of the radical tactical decisions of the tournament: taking off goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul near the end of extra time. A goalkeeper substitution without injury is unusual, but this was planned; Krul had a better penalty record, and was taller. He was imposing in the shootout, saving two Costa Rican penalties. Victory. The acumen of van Gaal was vindicated once more.

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Argentina, however, proved Holland’s final frontier. Their semi-final also went to penalties, but this time Ron Vlaar and Sneijder missed theirs, a reversal of the previous game. The Dutch luck had ran out, and yet this felt a befitting outcome. Van Persie’s extra-time substitution – Holland’s third of the game – was costly, given many expected Krul’s arrival again. The goals had dried up as the tournament progressed, and a third-place finish, secured after a 3-0 thumping of a destroyed Brazil, was fair.

Netherlands had a lot going for them. Daley Blind, Stefan de Vrij, and Bruno Martins Indi earned moves to Manchester United, Lazio, and Porto respectively. Memphis Depay displayed his talents, building on them the following season to earn a move to United too. But beyond all, van Gaal did his reputation a world of good: Manchester United fans were excited by what he would bring to them. He integrated the youngsters and veterans superbly, moulding them together into a unit.

The fall-out from 2014 was significant. It was clear that van Gaal covered the cracks adeptly, but his departure left several gaping holes. Guus Hiddink and Danny Blind failed to take them to Euro 2016 even with a relaxed qualification system, while Blind and Dick Advocaat fared no better with the 2018 World Cup. Failure to qualify for two major international tournaments is alarming; the Dutch decline is unfortunate. They bring pedigree to tournaments and their absence is missed, even if they don’t deserve to be there.

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Netherlands need to be back amongst the elite, and one hopes Ronald Koeman is the man to take them there. Whether or not he arrests the decline, the ongoing World Cup will be having fans harking back to a Dutch summer in Brazil four years back. They were good, successful, and unexpected times, but also the end of the line for the likes of Robben, Kuyt, Sneijder and van Persie. Until they are back in a world tournament, 2014 will remain a melancholic memory, the end of the Golden Generation.

Illustration by Ifrha (@ifrha3)