During the dying moments of the Netherlands' last-16 match against Mexico on Sunday, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was preparing to take a penalty kick.
Oranje had been 1-0 behind for much of the second half. For a long time, it had looked like the Dutch would be eliminated. But shortly before all hope was lost, Huntelaar had provided the assist for Wesley Sneijder’s equaliser.
The Dutch had dragged themselves from the gates of hell and were now back in the game. Shortly afterward, the referee had called a foul after Arjen Robben had been floored inside the box.
Now Huntelaar had to seal everything up by putting the ball past the seemingly invincible Mexican goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa.
It had been a strange journey for the Schalke striker. Near the end of the match, he had been brought on to replace the Netherlands’ star man, Robin van Persie, who had failed to score and seemed exhausted.
Huntelaar’s relation with Van Persie, and indeed with Oranje, had always been a strange one. As one of the most lethal strikers of his generation, Huntelaar had always yearned to be No. 1. It was just that manager Louis van Gaal always seemed to think that Huntelaar was good but that Van Persie was even better.
It is, perhaps, hard to argue with Van Gaal’s argument, but nonetheless, Huntelaar had never agreed. During Euro 2012, when the Dutch squad lost their way and fell victim to internal squabbling, he had rebelled by publicly stating he was “angry and disappointed” about his role as a reserve, as reported by MirrorFootball's Mo Moallim.
Two years later, during the World Cup in Brazil, he had so far been quiet about his role on the bench. Even when it became apparent that Van Gaal would sooner bring on the up-and-coming Memphis Depay than Huntelaar, he had taken it in stride.
Now, he had the chance to wash away all those years of frustration by converting that penalty and scoring the winning goal in this crucial last-16 match. A lot was depending on it.
Arjen Robben, who often takes penalties for the Netherlands, had probably seen where this was going. Huntelaar wanted to take it, and who was he to stand in the way of destiny?
Huntelaar scored his goal, ran to the corner flag and kicked it in a mad frenzy then ran to the crowd to celebrate his team’s victory with the supporters.
It was also his personal victory, though. After playing second fiddle for years, having to look at Van Persie—arguably one of the best strikers in the world—in front of him, thinking about what could have been in a different time, in a different team, he had finally shown what he was worth.
Huntelaar deserved to be of such importance to Oranje. It was the standout moment that was still missing from his Netherlands career. Having scored 35 goals in 63 appearances, he finally received his due.
Hopefully for the Schalke striker, Van Gaal will now start looking at him—not just at youngsters like Memphis Depay or quick runners like Jeremain Lens—when a substitute needs to be brought on late in the game.
As he showed against Mexico, Huntelaar still has a lot to offer his country. Perhaps especially now that he’ll feel liberated.
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