“Prick! You incredible prick!” Frank de Boer was yelling at himself in his car. He thumped the wheel. It was July 2000, weeks after the Netherlands had lost the Euro 2000 semi-final to Italy. It was the third straight European Championship that Holland had lost in a shoot-out and, including a loss to Brazil in the 1998 World Cup, a third elimination on penalties in four years.

The circumstances of this one were particularly tough to bear. The game was in the Amsterdam ArenA and the final was set for Rotterdam. The Netherlands, the tournament co-hosts, dominated the match. Italy had Gianluca Zambrotta sent off in the first half. And the Dutch missed two penalties in normal time. De Boer, the captain, was the main culprit. He missed the first of the two penalties, after 36 minutes, and Holland’s first in the shoot-out. 

De Boer thought his first attempt was a decent one, but the Italy goalkeeper Francesco Toldo who was booked for protesting against the decision, had psyched him out. At least De Boer believed he had. A few days earlier De Boer had scored a penalty against the Czech Republic, kicking to his non-natural side. At the 1998 World Cup, against Brazil, he had done the same. “That’s how I should have shot against Italy, but I decided at the last minute to do something else,” De Boer said. On the day before the game, he had over-practised penalties, taking 40 after training, even shooting with his eyes closed. “Scoring in both corners the previous day did not help. I thought that Toldo had seen my penalties and that put doubt in my mind.” On reflection, De Boer wished he had practised by hitting four penalties, and no more, into his favourite corner.

“What did De Boer do wrong?” Dutch TV’s touchline reporter asked Johan Cruyff at half-time. “He didn’t score,” Cruyff replied, “but at least he picked his corner. That’s one way of doing it. Look, you can’t prepare for these situations.” 

Fifteen minutes into the second half, the referee Markus Merk awarded the Netherlands another penalty. De Boer didn’t fancy it and offered it to Patrick Kluivert, Holland’s in-form centre-forward. “I had a feeling we were in trouble when Frank missed the first penalty, as that was normally a guaranteed goal,” said Kluivert, who at least managed to send Toldo the wrong way with his effort. It hit the right-hand post and Italy scrambled away the rebound. “It was then I thought that we might be cursed in this game.” 

Italy had their own nightmares to erase. They had lost in shoot-outs in the World Cup in 1990 (semi-final), 1994 (final) and 1998 (round of 16). When the game went to penalties, both teams expected to lose. 

The Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard had already subbed off Dennis Bergkamp and Boudewijn Zenden. Peter van Vossen had come on and was slated to take the fifth penalty. Embarrassingly, it never even reached that stage. 

Italy scored first, Luigi Di Biagio redeeming himself for missing the crucial penalty in the 1998 loss to France. De Boer was up next. The Dutch commentator Theo Reitsma wondered, “Who will keep Holland happy for the next few days by helping us win this? Frank de Boer? Yes, he would never miss twice, so he will step up.” De Boer’s twin brother Ronald told him to go hard down the middle. “I was not even that nervous,” Frank said. “Toldo made it into a game. He winked at me. But this time I had no doubts. I wanted to tell him, ‘So you know where I’m going to shoot, good for you.’” De Boer winked back, but he hit a weak shot, right of centre, which Toldo stopped with his feet. “It was only because I was tired that I hit it badly. We were mentally drained by this time, and our previous record at penalties was not giving us any hope.” 

Then Gianluca Pessotto scored and Jaap Stam blasted over the bar. “I took it just as I always did in training, because I never take penalties; but the tension changed everything,” Stam said. The big defender had taken one before, for FC Zwolle in a Dutch Cup tie. “I missed that one too.” 

It was 2-0 to Italy and Francesco Totti was next. The previous day, Totti had beaten Alessandro Nesta at PlayStation football after training and scored one of his goals with a penalty cucchiaio, or ‘spoon’ - Italian for the Panenka. “One of these days I will do it in a game,” he told him. 

When Di Biagio returned from his kick, Totti said to him, “Mo je faccio er cucchiaio.” “Now I will do the spoon.” Paolo Maldini overheard him. “Is he crazy?” said the captain. “There’s a final on the line.” Totti did not change his mind. Van der Sar dived right and Totti’s chip flew perfectly down the centre of the goal. “To take a penalty like that you must be crazy or very good,” Totti later said, “and I don’t think I’m crazy.”

Italy were 3-0 up, but Holland had a glimmer of hope when Kluivert scored and Van der Sar saved Maldini’s effort. Paul Bosvelt needed to score to keep Holland alive. He hit a weak shot and Toldo saved easily. Bosvelt and De Boer had had excellent tournaments but that was soon forgotten.

Bosvelt was called for a doping test after the game. He stayed behind in the stadium, without knowing that Rijkaard had resigned in a radio interview and his teammates were long gone. “I know that some players said no when asked to take a penalty,” he reflected. “Otherwise the coaches wouldn’t have come to me.”

Before the tournament, Rijkaard had promised that he would make eight players practise penalties after every training session. “If your run-up is good and you hit the ball mid-height, in the corner, with the right speed, a goalkeeper has no chance. That is trainable,” he insisted. “I don’t want to be eliminated because penalties are being missed.” After his team went out, he spoke like a true Cruyff protégé: “We practised almost every day, but it’s something unique to the game and we showed once again we’re no good at it.” 

Rijkaard’s predecessor Guus Hiddink had said something similar following Holland’s quarter-final exit from Euro 96 after losing on penalties to France. “A penalty is always a lottery,” Hiddink remarked. “You can’t blame anyone if they miss a penalty.” In fact, Hiddink himself was getting the blame, mainly for picking Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf, both just 20 years old, to take penalties in place of the substituted Richard Witschge and Bergkamp. 

Seedorf’s case best sums up Holland’s penalty failings. The young midfielder played the full 90 minutes of the Netherlands’ opening goalless draw against Scotland, but was taken off against Switzerland after only 26 minutes. He started the next game against England as a defensive midfielder and, as Matty Verkamman’s match report in Trouw put it, played “like a headless chicken”, criticising his teammates after the 4-1 defeat for not sticking to their tasks. He started the quarter-final against France at Anfield on the bench, coming on after an hour. Holland might have had a penalty with five minutes left – Marcel Desailly handballed in the area but the referee Antonio López Nieto ignored the appeals – and Seedorf missed a late chance from close-range to win the game.

It finished goalless and went to penalties. Hiddink told the players who would be taking them and in what order – he didn’t ask for volunteers. Seedorf was number four. The score was 3-3 when he stepped up. His teammates, watching, were a divided group1: some players had their arms around each other, others did not. Away from the main group stood Danny Blind and Frank de Boer, out on their own. 

Two months earlier, Ajax had lost the Champions League final to Juventus on penalties. The two players who missed in that game, Sonny Silooy and Edgar Davids, had kicked to their non-natural side. The Dutch press had warned the players not to make the same mistake. Seedorf paid no notice: he kicked to his right, too near the middle, and the France goalkeeper Bernard Lama easily saved his effort. 

As he walked back to the centre-circle, Seedorf had tears in his eyes. His black teammates consoled him, as did France’s Christian Karembeu, his Sampdoria teammate, who later compared the shoot-out to Russian roulette: “It is loading the bullet into the chamber of the gun and asking everyone to pull the trigger. Someone will get the bullet, you know that. And it will reduce them to nothing.” De Boer actively ignored Seedorf. Vincent Guérin and Laurent Blanc scored for France, who won.

The next day, Seedorf said he was over the disappointment and that it was only a bad penalty because Lama dived the right way. “In training before the match, Clarence took 15 corners and he rarely got the ball in the air,” wrote Matty Verkamman in Trouw. “He was as weak at corners in the game; the same from free-kicks. And Hiddink let this man take a penalty?”

Seedorf was unbowed. In his eyes, he deserved the status of a senior player and he would do anything to achieve that. The following April, a few weeks after he had turned 21, he took another penalty. Except this time, no one had asked him.

Holland were trailing 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier in Turkey. With five minutes left, Alpay Özalan fouled Pierre van Hooijdonk and there was a chance to equalise. Wim Jonk was the nominated penalty-taker, but he’d had a poor game and gestured to Frank de Boer, back in his own half, to take it. Before De Boer had an opportunity to cross the halfway line, Seedorf had picked up the ball and put it on the spot. 

Less than one minute had elapsed between the penalty award and Seedorf striking the ball. Striking the ball over the crossbar. The Netherlands lost and for a while their qualification hopes were in the balance (they did eventually qualify for the 1998 World Cup - where, it barely needs stating, they lost on penalties in the semi-final). “Seedorf’s ego is bigger than his experience and he finds it hard to accept that he is the youngest player in the Dutch team,” wrote Robert Misset in Het Parool. The same paper’s editorial called him “a douchebag”. Johan Cruyff, commentating for Dutch national broadcaster NOS, was furious that a young player had been allowed to take the responsibility. If he was playing, he stormed, he would have booted Seedorf off the pitch and made an experienced player take the kick.

Hiddink said it was his fault, De Boer said it was his fault. The only person who didn’t say it was his fault was Seedorf, who just said he felt confident. That was his biggest problem, wrote Pieter van Os in De Groene Amsterdammer. “The miracle of Seedorf is that he has no fear of penalties – yet he always misses. To ignore this penalty fear is disastrous. Clarence, let your fear take over!” 

By the time the 1998 World Cup came around, the Dutch camp had wised up. Seedorf did not take a penalty in the shoot-out against Brazil, despite coming on as a late substitute. When Ronald De Boer, his nemesis in 1996, missed the decisive penalty, Seedorf was the first player to console him. 

Seedorf’s fear never did materialise and you can guess what happened when he volunteered himself for a penalty in the 2003 Champions League final at Old Trafford. His team, AC Milan, were 1-0 up in the shoot-out and Seedorf, kicking second, went to his natural side this time; the Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon dived the right way and saved it. But Juventus missed their next two kicks, so Seedorf did at least end up on the winning side. 

As European champions, Milan travelled to Yokohama in December to face Boca Juniors in the Intercontinental Cup. The game ended 1-1 and went to penalties. Guess what? Seedorf, second up for Milan, missed again, hitting it over the bar. “I went to the right of the keeper, high, but a bit too high,” he said. “Again, that wasn’t a matter of technique. With penalties it’s about psychology, the last few seconds before you kick. I’m still practising that.”

“If you did not know his history as a penalty-taker, you would pick him as he has an excellent kicking technique,” said Van Hooijdoink, a penalty specialist himself. “It was very strange that Clarence missed so much: it was probably psychological [caused by] that sense the goal becomes twice as small from the spot.” 

Seedorf continued to practise. Anyone can miss a penalty, as Hiddink put it, but it takes a special type of confidence to keep on coming back for more. And he did: in 2007, against PSV in a pre-season friendly tournament in Russia, Seedorf hit his penalty against the crossbar, knocking Milan out. In May 2013, playing for Botafogo, Seedorf’s spot-kick hit the crossbar again in a 1-0 win over Fluminense (the result secured the team’s Carioca championship). Seedorf was 37, he had the status he always craved, he was the experienced player that Cruyff would now want to take a penalty. But it was the same outcome as 17 years earlier.

The Netherlands’ Euro 2000 defeat to Italy was the nadir of their penalty crisis. Five kilometres from the Amsterdam ArenA, a football-obsessed management consultant had been taking notes. A few months earlier, Gyuri Vergouw had published a book, De Strafschop – The Penalty. After Brazil had beaten the Netherlands on penalties in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, Vergouw was fed up with the same old excuse that penalties are a lottery. He had been collecting data on penalties for more than 20 years and was convinced that proper practice would improve the Dutch chances of success. “There’s practising and then there’s Practising,” he said. “And they are two very different things.”

The book came out shortly before Euro 2000. Vergouw sent a copy to all the players in the Dutch squad, and was a guest on the football chat show Villa Barend and Van Dorp. The other guest was the Dutch secretary of state, Dirk Bensdorp. Vergouw showed him how to take a penalty, turning him from a flop to a scorer in the space of two kicks. 

Vergouw asked the studio audience to visit his website and vote which players should take the Dutch penalties in the upcoming tournament. Frank de Boer and Kluivert were the overwhelming winners. Vergouw disagreed. In his book, he had listed the top five players who must “absolutely not take a penalty”. Number one was Kluivert, two was De Boer (the others were Marc Overmars, Phillip Cocu and Roy Makaay). “When De Boer and Kluivert missed against Italy, the book became legendary,” Vergouw said. 

But there was one thing Vergouw had not predicted. The Dutch players were furious with him. They saw him as an outsider and the book as overly critical. “I wrote it for the Dutch players,” he said, “but the opposite happened.” Whenever he met them, they would refuse to shake his hand. One was a fellow guest on another radio show. Just before going on air, the player hissed, “If I had known you were coming, I would not have agreed to appear.”

Vergouw was shaken by the response: “I felt like a loner. To five % of Dutch people, I’m a hero, but to the rest, I’m a nuisance. The negative response I have had from the football world is astonishing, but I just keep on repeating it. We still don’t know how to take penalties.”

Part of the reason for Vergouw’s struggle came from the Dutch attitude that penalties can’t be practised. “Penalties are about what’s in between the ears, but in a nerve-wracking shoot-out everything is different,” said Leo Beenhakker. Wim van Hanegem agreed: “I hope people now don’t tell us all to start practising penalties. It’s bullshit. They are simply not trainable.” And so, of course, did Johan Cruyff: “The pressure, the excitement and the fatigue all make a difference. Honestly, you can’t prepare, taking penalties in training is useless, the penalty is a unique skill outside of football.”

Dennis Bergkamp had watched the shoot-out from the touchline; it was the fourth time he had been part of a losing Holland team after penalties. The defeats clearly still rankle: his autobiography, Stillness and Speed, features a heated conversation with his co-author David Winner in which Bergkamp, a deep thinker about the game, repeats the usual excuses for penalty failure. “Penalties are never in your hands… You can never simulate the same pressure. You can practise and practise but it’s still different when you get to a real shootout… There’s an element of chance as well… you can’t criticise people by saying, ‘You took a bad penalty, you should have done better…’. With all due respect, you’ve never been in that situation. And still you’re judging someone who has been there?” The conversation comes to an abrupt end when Winner draws a distinction between a penalty missed because of a great save and one skied almost out of the stadium. Bergkamp’s response is out of character for a man who played the game with a different view of things: “I don’t see that [distinction].”

It is the opinion of Cruyff, a national icon, which has more than anything dictated this national attitude. The more Cruyff said that penalties couldn’t be trained for, the tougher it was for Gyuri Vergouw to be taken seriously. In Brilliant Orange, Winner compared Vergouw to Cassandra, the prophet who was never believed even though her predictions came true. Vergouw sees himself more as Galileo: “Everyone is telling me the sun is going round the earth, but I’m saying it’s the other way around.” The Dutch broadsheet NRC ran the headline, ‘Johan Cruyff has no idea about penalties’, based on its interview with Vergouw. 

The theory, according to Vergouw, is that Cruyff is assumed to be a penalty expert because, on 5 December 1982, against relegation-threatened Helmond Sport, he scored a famous penalty after exchanging passes from the spot with his teammate Jesper Olsen. Never mind that Cruyff was not the first to succeed with this type of penalty – that was Rik Coppens, in 1957; more significantly, this was the first, and indeed only official penalty he took for Ajax, after 10 years and over 250 appearances for the team. If he took them in training, remembered the reserve goalkeeper Ron Boomgard, it was only “to try crazy things and humiliate his opponent”. Henk Groot, Gerrie Mühren and Johan Neeskens were ahead of Cruyff in the penalty list for Ajax and for the national side Neeskens and Rob Rensenbrink had the responsibility.

At the start of his final season as a professional, at Feyenoord, Cruyff played a friendly tournament against Roma. The game went to penalties, and Cruyff, hoping to impress his new team, stepped up. “I’d played two games in two days plus extra time, and was living on my nerves,” he said on Villa Barend and Van Dorp. “You do your little walk back to run up at the ball. You close your eyes and you see where it will end up. That one, it ended up in the second-tier seats. The goal was small before the penalties began. The higher the tension, the smaller the goal gets.”

There are two theories why Cruyff did not fancy penalties. One is that the essence of Cruyff the footballer was all about movement and intuition and that the idea of standing still and waiting to kick the ball after the referee’s whistle was anathema to him. The other comes from Bert Hiddema, author of Cruyff! Van Jopie tot Johan. “Good penalty takers have a hard shot,” he said. “And that was exactly what he lacked. At a young age he didn’t have the strength [for it] and would instead use a curved kicking style, which was much more suitable for creative passing than penalties.”

“Johan didn’t do it himself,” Rob Rensenbrink told me. “I think maybe he was frightened of missing.” Rensenbrink was one of the Netherlands’ most reliable penalty takers. He scored four out of four at the 1978 World Cup and was assiduous in his practice. He would take between 10 and 20 after every training-session, sometimes telling the goalkeeper where he would aim before kicking, other times sticking poles half a metre inside each goalpost, and striking the ball in between the pole and the post every time. “It’s like free-kicks, the more you take, the better you get. Saying you can’t practise is bullshit. Just do it every day.”

De Strafschop was the first of Vergouw’s tetralogy of books, written for the Dutch football fan who repeats the same questions every time the Netherlands reach a major tournament: “Why can’t Holland take penalties? Why can’t Holland beat Germany? Why haven’t Holland ever become world champions? And couldn’t I do a better job as national coach?” His prescience shone through in each of them.

In De Laatste Minuut (The Last Minute), he asks why Germany score so many late goals and concludes that the team learns from its mistakes – in a way that the likes of England and the Netherlands don’t – as has been proven by the development of the talent they have produced since their Euro 2000 failure. His next instalment, Oranje wereldkampioen (The Dutch as World Champions), explains why the Dutch have never won a World Cup. It came out just before the 2010 tournament and Vergouw bemoans Holland’s reluctance to pick a true number nine – “We think [Klaas-Jan] Huntelaar is lousy because all he does is score goals but if he was German, he’d have statues in his honour” – and to take extra-time seriously. In the final against Spain, Holland lost in extra-time.

His final book, Bondscoach, breaks down the qualities needed for a top national team coach and cites those who only make value-driven decisions, with no personal attachment at all, as best at the job. It sounds obvious but Vergouw says it’s not. He was surprised at how many boxes Louis van Gaal, Holland coach when he was writing, ticked2.

Would the Netherlands have won the 2010 final on penalties? “I don’t think so,” said Vergouw. “Even though they had the penalty analysis from Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, the coach Van Marwijk did not believe in practising and we know where he got that from.” 

Vergouw has been nicknamed Professor Penalty in Holland and organises penalty-based ‘bonding sessions’ for businesses, in which they hire out a big stadium, take penalties at their boss and listen to Vergouw link business practice to spot-kicks. After one such talk at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium, two youngsters in the audience, students at the nearby Johan Cruyff Academy, thought they had misheard. “Did you really say that you can practise penalties?” they asked him. “Because Mr Cruyff always told us you can’t.” 

Johan is a Dutch football magazine named after Cruyff but that did not stop one of its writers calling him out on his penalty blind spot. “Maybe it’s time to switch off when Cruyff talks about penalties,” wrote Auke Kok. “Not because it’s terrible that he rarely took them but because, even if the truth bears little resemblance to what he says, everyone blindly accepts it. The only question is: who would dare do such a thing?”

Louis van Gaal would. No one quite knows the exact reasons behind the feud between Van Gaal and Cruyff. Some suggest it began in 1972, when Van Gaal joined Ajax as a player (he never made the first team) and lectured his teammates, Cruyff among them, about tactics. Van Gaal has claimed it began in December 1989, when he was an assistant coach at Ajax. Van Gaal was having dinner at Cruyff’s house with the Koeman brothers when he took a phone call telling him that his sister had died. He rushed out of the house. “Later I heard that Johan was angry I didn’t thank him for the meal,” he wrote in his autobiography. Cruyff denies it3. Both men want to be the king of Ajax and the king of Barcelona.

There is also a philosophical difference: Cruyff believes in the quality of the individual, Van Gaal in the collectief. And so even after Van Gaal’s Dutch side beat the reigning world champions Spain 5-1 in their opening match in the 2014 World Cup – playing not with the Dutch model 4-3-3, but a 5-3-2 formation, with three goals coming from diagonal long-balls – Cruyff was reticent in his praise. “The conversation about formations is ridiculous!” he wrote in his De Telegraaf newspaper column. “We are doing this to reach the next round and that’s why we made the change, but it’s clear that it will not last.” 

Cruyff may have felt that Van Gaal’s pragmatic tactics, forced upon him by the absence of the injured midfielder Kevin Strootman, were against Dutch principles. He said after the round of 16 win over Mexico that he had only enjoyed the last 30 minutes, which was when Holland switched to 4-3-3. But Cruyff was being harsh. Van Gaal’s side switched systems mid-game, used space and movement cleverly and had players like Daley Blind and Dirk Kuyt constantly dropping into different positions. “The fluidity and shape-shifting of the side, as well as the sophisticated and game-affecting changes from the sidelines, meant this was a side in keeping with Dutch traditions,” Winner confirmed. 

There was one tradition, though, that Van Gaal was happy to end. It came at the end of the Netherlands’ goalless quarter-final against Costa Rica. The Dutch had dominated for 120 minutes: Wesley Sneijder had twice hit the post, while the Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas had one of those ‘nothing can get past me’ games. Costa Rica had beaten Greece in the previous round on penalties, scoring five out of five, and as the shoot-out approached they had the momentum.

Until, that is, Van Gaal sent out the reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul to get warmed up. “When I started my warm-up the whole Costa Rica bench was confused about what was going on,” Krul said. “Their manager’s face when he saw me was priceless. He was looking over to see what our manager was doing.” With one minute left to play, Van Gaal took off his first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and brought on Krul, specifically for the shoot-out. In a football industry dominated by conservatism, Van Gaal had dared to do something different. 

In the past, this move has had mixed success. The Greuther Fürth coach Mike Buskens swapped Max Grün for Jasmin Fezjić two minutes before the end of the 2012 German Cup semi-final against Borussia Dortmund. But two minutes was long enough for Dortmund to get a winner, Ilkay Gündoğan shooting from the edge of the area on 119 minutes and 56 seconds with an effort that hit the post, struck Fezjić on the shoulder and cannoned into the net. In 1996, the Leicester City coach Martin O’Neill took off goalkeeper Kevin Poole and brought on Željko Kalac after 119 minutes of the First Division promotion play-off final against Crystal Palace. Before full-time, Steve Claridge scored a winner for Leicester and Kalac did not touch the ball.

On the other hand, in the semi-final and the final of the 2004 African Champions League Felix Omordi, coach of the Nigerian side Enyimba, subbed off Vincent Enyeama and brought on Dele Aiyenugba for the shoot-out. It worked against Espérance in the semi and in the final against another Tunisian side, Étoile du Sahel, when Aiyenugba saved Sabeur Ben Frej’s kick to help Enyimba win the shoot-out 5-3. 

Ciaran Kelly was even more successful for Sligo Rovers, coming off the bench to save four penalties out of four in the 2010 Irish Cup final against Shamrock Rovers; he saved another two a year later in the Cup final against Shelbourne.

While Cillessen had not saved any of his previous 16 penalties, Krul had saved two of his previous 20. This meant that the third-choice Michel Vorm, with three saves from 11 penalties, was in fact the team’s penalty specialist. But that was not the point. Krul’s presence had planted a seed of doubt in the Costa Rican minds. They were left thinking, “This guy must be good if he’s coming on just to save penalties.” 

Krul was brash and aggressive, taking any possible advantage he could to destabilise the Costa Rican shooters. He is also left-handed and perhaps that came into play given that three kickers were left-footed. Before every kick, he walked up to each player as they were spotting the ball and spoke to them. To some he said, “Vamos!”, Spanish for “Come on!”, others he told where they were going to shoot. “I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he said. “I didn’t shout in an aggressive manner. I did nothing crazy, I told them I knew the way they were going with their penalties because I had analysed it. I was trying to get in their heads and it worked. It is a way of trying to psyche them out. They were under massive pressure. I was under massive pressure. So I did everything in my power. [Van Gaal’s decision] definitely had an impact. It was a fantastic move.” 

The Netherlands had scored their first two penalties when Bryan Ruiz stepped up. Krul had walked over to the right of the goal while Ruiz was approaching. The Costa Rica captain struck his penalty left-footed to his natural side and Krul saved it. “I have no problem with Krul’s actions,” said Ruiz after the game. Michael Umana, fifth up, had scored Costa Rica’s winning penalty against Greece; this time, though, he was kicking to avoid defeat and his effort was saved, again to Krul’s natural side. 

The Netherlands had won their first World Cup shoot-out – and ‘won’ is the key word. This was one of those rare shoot-outs where the focus was not on Ruiz and Umana. They had not lost it for their team, but Van Gaal, and Krul, had won it. Not since Antonín Panenka’s penalty in 1976 has an international tournament shoot-out focused so much on the ‘winning move’ rather than the losing one.

“He has a golden cock,” said Arjen Robben, referring to Van Gaal’s Midas touch. 

“I don’t know, [my wife] Truus has never told me that,” Van Gaal countered. “We thought it through. Every player has certain skills and qualities and they don’t always coincide. We felt Tim would be the most appropriate keeper to save penalties. We’re a tiny bit proud this trick has helped us through.” 

It was significant that the first person Van Gaal turned to as he celebrated was Frans Hoek, his goalkeeping coach. Aside from a spell as Poland goalkeeping coach under Leo Beenhakker (2005-2009), Hoek has worked with Van Gaal at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Van Gaal may have taken credit for the decision, but it was based on Hoek’s know-how. He divides his goalkeepers into two categories: A-type and R-type. A is for Anticipation, and refers to ball-playing goalkeepers who are happy to participate in possession, not scared of a back pass, and quick to move if his defence plays a high line. “Anticipation goalkeepers could be easily used as outfield players, as they are able to function as the eleventh player,” Hoek explained. 

R stands for Reaction. “This type of goalkeeper is an absolute winner. He will go to any extreme in order to win, is physically strong and has a high muscle tone. He is very strong and has quick reactions… a lot of muscle strength and great charisma,” Hoek said. The R-type is a great shot-stopper but less good at one-on-ones and, personified by Krul’s physique and charisma, is preferable for a penalty shoot-out. 

‘Louis van Genius’ revelled in the praise coming his way, and while he might not have seen it as the opportunity to stick up two fingers at Cruyff, it was another example of the differences between the two men. Despite that, Cruyff was impressed with the switch: “I wondered if he would do it and enjoyed it when he did. These are the things that I love.” Given he sees penalties as “outside of football” and claims you cannot practise for them, it seems hard to believe that Cruyff saw the Krul move coming. Perhaps Van Gaal’s assistant coach Danny Blind came closest to the truth when he admitted to Fabio Cannavaro, “We have a terrible record from penalties and so we thought we just had to try something different.” 

The Netherlands had reached the semi-final and Van Gaal was two games from greatness. One by one, he was ridding the Dutch of their World Cup complexes: already he had avenged the 2010 World Cup final loss to Spain, ended the long-running issues of squad disunity and overturned the Netherlands’ penalty hoodoo. With the two teams that had beaten Holland in the 1978 and 1974 World Cup finals – Argentina and Germany – potential opponents in the semi-final and final, Van Gaal was closing in on history. He could have overtaken Rinus Michels and Cruyff in the pantheon of great Dutch coaches. Winning the World Cup would have sealed his legend. 

It didn’t quite work out like that. The semi-final against Argentina was a tight affair: Van Gaal wanted to stop Lionel Messi and Argentina’s job was to keep Arjen Robben quiet. Both succeeded. All eyes were on Van Gaal and his substitutions. He took off Bruno Martins Indi at half-time, because the full-back had been booked and, playing against Messi, risked a red card. Nigel de Jong and Robin van Persie had been pre-game injury doubts but both played, and could not last the full match. Jordy Clasie replaced De Jong and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar came on for Van Persie, who had scored the first penalty against Costa Rica.

The game went to a shoot-out, but this time there was no Krul for the Netherlands. That must have handed Argentina a psychological boost. Robben won the toss and kicked first, but Van Gaal struggled to find a replacement for Van Persie. Huntelaar was down to kick fifth in both matches. The coach asked two players and they refused before Ron Vlaar, outstanding in the match, stepped up. Vlaar had never taken a penalty before and it showed. His reaction time after the referee’s whistle was very quick and the goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved his effort, which was aimed to the non-natural side but too central. For Vlaar in 2014, you could read Bosvelt in 20004.

Messi went first for Argentina and, despite Cillessen’s unconvincing efforts to ape Krul, consolidated the advantage by scoring. After Robben had scored, Wesley Sneijder was third up. For all his reputation as a dead-ball specialist, he had never scored a penalty in open play, and like most non-regular kickers, he aimed for his natural side, as he had against Costa Rica. Romero saved again. 

It was a strange move for Van Gaal to admit publicly that two of his players had refused to take a penalty. Maybe he had meant to shift blame onto the two players – they remain unknown, though rumour has settled on two of the younger squad members - but the only person who looked bad was the coach himself. He knew that Van Persie was unlikely to finish the game, so it was his responsibility to organise a kicker for the number one position in the event his captain was off the pitch.

Vergouw wrote in Bondscoach that the coach should always take responsibility for the shoot-out, whatever the result. So if Van Gaal was responsible for the game-changing Krul switch, the same has to be true for the Argentina shoot-out. “Van Gaal’s weakness is that he takes all the credit when things go well but when it goes wrong, it’s never his fault,” said Vergouw. “There is always someone else to blame.”

In the end, Van Gaal was not able to exorcise all the Dutch ghosts. The penalty success was fun while it lasted, but fleeting. Did anything change for the Dutch in 2014? Not really, no. There was no anger, sadness or confusion after the latest penalty loss – just acceptance. “It was just another day in the office for Dutch fans,” said Vergouw. “Go to a game, lose on penalties. Even I am learning to accept it now.” 

“It’s the most terrible scenario, to lose on penalties,” Van Gaal said, and as though the Costa Rica moment was a mirage, he added: “We didn’t lose against Argentina, but penalties are down to luck.” That, at least, is something Cruyff would agree with. 

This is an edited updated version of an extract from Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty (Bantam Press), which is out now.