The little country that could, Costa Rica, gave the soccer Goliath, the Netherlands, everything they could handle on Saturday in Salvador, Brazil, and then some.
With both teams fighting for their World Cup lives and a spot among the tournament’s final four squads, the two teams played to a scoreless tie and a penalty kick shootout.
But the team’s best player, Bryan Ruiz, and Michael Umaña missed penalties and Holland prevailed, 0-0 (4-3).
Before the match nobody gave Costa Rica much of a chance of knocking off the Dutch. The Netherlands had made it to the semifinals of the World Cup four times before, losing in the final three times—most recently at the last tournament in South Africa in 2010.
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Well, they made it to the Round of 16 once before, in 1990.
For the Ticos, every step forward they have made history.
Ruiz, their star midfielder who plays for PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch league, on Friday told the press, “We know we’re doing something so big for the people back home, but maybe we don’t realize the extent of how big just yet.”
The game started slowly, with the two teams feeling each other out for much of the first 20 minutes. That’s the way it’s gone with the Netherlands all tournament long.
The Dutch have scored only two goals in the first half of their four games before Saturday, and allowed two.
After the half, however, they’ve bombed in 10 while limiting their opponents to 2.
Part of the reason that Netherlands coach, Louis van Gaal, raised a few eyebrows on Friday when he told the press, "We're not a great team, but a team which is difficult to beat. So far we have shown that and I hope we can continue that up to and including the final."
In any event, there weren’t many legitimate scoring opportunities in the first half. The best was a free kick in the 39th minute nearly converted by Wesley Sneijder but punched out of bounds by Costa Rica’s standout keeper, Keylor Navas.
In the second half, the Ticos began to get more opportunities, mainly off fouls. The larger Dutch players weren’t shy about bulling about their smaller opponents, especially on the defensive end.
The Netherlands led throughout the game in most statistics, including a huge 64-36 edge in time of possession, except for free kicks—the Ticos were awarded nearly twice as many as the Dutch, 28-15.
Even so, the referee, Ravshan Irmatov of Uzbekistan, mostly let the teams play.
As the second half wore on, the Dutch pressed the attack more. Another Sneijder free kick bounced off the goal post in the 82nd minute. A minute later Robin van Persie drilled a ball from close range that Navas covered.
Two minutes into the stoppage time, a questionable call on an Arjen Robben flying flop created an opportunity for Holland with a wild scramble in front of the Costa Rican goal. Navas was sprawled on the ground and midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda kicked a shot by van Persie out of the goal.
They went to extra time and it was more of the same. Furious Dutch attacks; brilliant saves by the Navas and the Tico defense.
With two minutes left in the extra time, Sneijder again hit the crossbar. It would be the last, best chance for either team.
Van Gaal inserted a penalty kick specialist at goalie for the shootout, Tim Krul. The move paid off when he stopped two penalties and sent the Dutch to the semifinals to play Argentina on Wednesday.
For the gallant Ticos, the World Cup is now history.