CAPE TOWN, South Africa – In the 1970s, the Dutch idolized the creative genius of Johan Cruyff even though he had never won the World Cup. This year, Dirk Kuyt’s grit and determination might take them to the title.
In a country where beauty has long trumped winning, the Netherlands team of 2010 is doing it the other way around, epitomized by the work ethic and persistence of the versatile Kuyt.
“He always gives everyone a signal how it should be done. And his impact and enthusiasm is very infectious,” coach Bert van Marwijk said. “He is incredibly important.”
So much so that Van Marwijk benched one of his most gifted players, Rafael van der Vaart, to give Kuyt the opportunity to wear down Brazil. He did, helping send the Netherlands into Tuesday’s semifinal against Uruguay.
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Whether in orange or the red of Liverpool, Kuyt plays the same way. Like a pinball gone wild, he chases players left, right and center and doesn’t give up until his team has possession of the ball. Then he reverts into the utility forward he normally is, opens up play and makes on-target passes like the assist that earned the Dutch a 2-1 victory over Slovakia in the second round.
Thanks to Kuyt, it has become “so much for the Dutch vaunted Big Four.” Purists wanted to see the Oranje play the talented quartet of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Van der Vaart and Robin van Persie.
Van Persie even made a point of pushing for it himself, and pushing Kuyt onto the sidelines in the process.
The notion didn’t work for Van Marwijk, who has had to fight off unkind comparisons to Holland Total Football of the 1970s – when the Dutch made two World Cup finals, losing to hosts West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978. Ever since his team started winning ugly in the group stage, Van Marwijk has heard the critics.
However ugly it is, his team is the only nation with a perfect record in the World Cup.
“The way he fights in this team, his workload rubs off on all the other players,” captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst said.
On Monday, Kuyt received the ultimate Dutch compliment when Cruyff embraced his play and work ethic.
“Without belittling anyone, it is still nice to see how Kuyt developed into one of the most valuable players. There were doubts, but he was ready as of the opening game,” Cruyff wrote in De Telegraaf.
“Look at what he did. Started on the right, then at forward and against Brazil on the left, not only did he keep (star defender) Maicon out of the game, he also set up the winner” when Kuyt headed a corner kick to Sneijder for the deciding goal.
“Someone like that is worth his weight in gold,” Cruyff said.