RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - It seems the Netherlands is soccer’s most attractive bridesmaid.
Three times the Roarin’ Oranje have been in the World Cup final and three times it has lost.
If this were a horse race and bettors were betting the daily racing form, there would be little doubt the big Oranje thoroughbred would be placed in the favoured role when it goes head-to-head with Argentina in Wednesday’s semifinal in Sao Paulo.
A trip to yet another final will follow and, perhaps this time, Holland will be wearing the white dress.
Only if was that simple, right?
A week ago, it might have been. Argentina was stumbling and bumbling its way through a list of average teams in this tournament, relying on Lionel Messi, the best player on the planet, to find some way to win the game for them.
In the meantime, the Dutch were playing some slick soccer and, while not everything came easy, they were clearly the dominant team.
With Argentina on the horizon, and perhaps Brazil in the final, it looked as if another wedding was in the Oranje future.
Then suddenly things changed.
Argentina found its game against a good Belgium side. Messi was suddenly getting help from teammates who were previously only pictures on milk cartons as missing persons.
The Argentines have lost Angel di Maria for the rest of the tournament, but injured Sergio Alguero has the go-ahead to play.
But the Albiceleste found something more. What looked like a blue-white striped army of zombies has suddenly found some heart and soul.
They aren’t a reincarnation of the Passarella-Burruchaga-Maradona teams of the past, but certainly better than the Fido-Shep-Rover pooches that Argentina played like in the first few games.
Even Messi noted the difference in their effort and desire in the match versus Belgium.
“Today more than ever we were a team,” Messi said after the game. “We didn’t create much but neither did they. We ran more than ever, because to get through we had to run that much and be totally committed. We played a game I am not used to doing -- to run.”
Holland isn’t selective when they play their matches.
This whole tournament they’ve really only operated at top speed. Fantastic players like Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt have run miles and miles in the heat and humidity.
Despite Robben’s leathery personality, he is a magnificent player, one of the top five in this World Cup.
If there is any justice in soccer then the Netherlands would be playing in the final. But justice is not a word often heard in soccer. Too often it’s about what happens in the moment -- as in what will the referee decide to call and why.
The Dutch not only have to face a resurgent Argentine team, they also hope their tour of Brazil doesn’t kill them in the end.
The Netherlands went from Salvador to Porto Alegre, Sao Paulo, Fortaleza, back to Salvador and now Sao Paulo once more.
Argentina has played in Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Sao Paulo and then Brasilia, which is a much more compact tour.
People believe an Argentina-Brazil final is what most South Americans and neutrals want.
Brazil would like to be in the final with anyone but Argentina. They don’t like their South American partner very much, and losing to them in the Maracana would be like their 1950 loss to Uruguay in front of 200,000 at the old Maracana.
Several fans opted for suicide after that loss.
The teams dislike each other so much that it may just make for a horrendous final as the players spend more time booting each other than they will the ball.
Still, Argentina is looking at Holland and thinking, “if we can get by this team and if Brazil makes it past Germany, we get to play those northern jerks while they are missing Neymar.”
It’s going to make the churrasco meat taste a lot better in Argentina if they can spoil Brazil’s own World Cup.
The problem for Argentina is a lot more immediate though. It’s those big Oranje guys who have many of their own reasons for finally wanting to win a world championship.
And when you cut through all the passion, optics, and politics waist-high verbiage, one fact stands out.
And it’s that the Dutch are a much better team and will paint the town Oranje when it’s all said and done.