Â This was supposed to be the day the last of the outsiders was shown the door at the World Cup, leaving the tournament to be decided by the clubby and the familiar.
Eventually it happened that way in Saturday's quarterfinal, but only after the Netherlands was taken dramatically and nervously to penalty kicks against Costa Rica and won for the first time in five attempts in a World Cup match that had strayed beyond regulation. (Match highlights)
After growing frustrated and failing to finish several inviting chances in the run of play, the Dutch were calm, bold and clinical in the shootout, winning, 4-3, after the game had remained 0-0 through overtime. (The 'goal-keeper switch' that worked for the Dutch)
The Netherlands will face Argentina in a semifinal on Wednesday, and Brazil will face Germany in the other on Thursday. While the other three semifinalists have 10 World Cup titles among them, the Dutch have played in the final three times and never won.
The runner-up in 1974, 1978 and 2010, the Netherlands is considered the finest soccer nation not to win a World Cup. It is small consolation, though, and the Oranje will seek another chance to find liberation and escape heartache.
With Costa Rica's exit, after equally excruciating defeats for the United States and Mexico in the second round, North America, Central America and the Caribbean were again left without a semifinalist in a drought that extends to 1930. As widely predicted, the World Cup has distilled itself to powers from South America and Europe.
On Saturday, in the waning moments of overtime, Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal replaced his starting goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, with Tim Krul, who had yet to play in the tournament. It was an inspired move.
Krul was assured, perhaps even haughty. He kissed the ball and walked near the Costa Ricans as they prepared to shoot, staring at them. He also seemed to gesture as if he knew where they intended to place the ball.
At least twice, he did.
In its previous match, against Greece, Costa Rica had made all five of its attempts in the shootout. This time, a left-footed shot by captain Bryan Ruiz lacked speed and conviction and Krul pushed it wide.
Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt all shot assuredly for the Netherlands. Then it was left to Costa Rican defender Michael Umana to take what became the decisive kick.
Krul guessed correctly, or detected some giveaway look or movement, and dived to his left to save the shot and the game. The DutchÂ players raced to mob him. The breathless finish was in stark contrast to the drowsy start of the game, in which the Netherlands kicked the ball around its back line patiently or aimlessly, depending on one's view.
Beforehand, Robben juggled the ball with his head, letting it bounce lower and lower until it essentially came to rest like a baby being rocked to sleep. The first half was equally somnolent.
The game came alive in the second half. All night, Robben stabbed down the right flank, luring the Ticos into four yellow cards for fouling him, sometimes embellishing his falls by throwing his arms out as if jumping from a plane.
Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica's coach, had urged referee Ravshan Irmatov to officiate with proper skepticism, saying he was "really worried about Robben diving."
The Costa Ricans will not have changed their opinion after Saturday's quarterfinal. Still, even with Robben's tireless running, his insistent threatening, the Netherlands could not get a ball past Costa Rica's superb goalie, Keylor Navas, or the goal posts until penalty kicks.
The Dutch were called for offsides 13 times. Van Persie seemed particularly anxious. He was far from the exceptional form he displayed here during the Netherlands' opener when his stunning header led a 5-1 rout of Spain, the defending champion.
At that moment, van Persie's body seemed a human punctuation mark, parallel to the ground, as wavy as a tilde. Saturday, though, he was often flat. Twice, he was rebuffed by Navas at close range and he seldom appeared sharp until the game went to penalty kicks.
In the 82nd minute Sneijder hit the left post on a free kick. Six minutes later, van Persie somehow whiffed on a cross from Sneijder at the back post.
In the final moments of regulation, a cross by Daley Blind rolled past two teammates to van Persie, whose shot struck Costa Rica's Yeltsin Tejeda on the goal line and hit the underside of the crossbar. In the 119th minute, Sneijder hit off the crossbar.
When the match reached penalty kicks, Pinto punched the air as if his team had played all night for this moment. It was not supposed to be this difficult for the Netherlands. But Krul was up to the challenge.
He plays in England for Newcastle United, but had saved only 2 of 20 penalty kicks in the Premier League.
"That is not normal," Krul said of sitting the entire match and then entering with the pressure of advancing his team to the World Cup semifinals.
"It's a dream," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Â© 2014 New York Times News Service