CAPE TOWN - Although simply saying "The Dutch" will bring a smile to the lips of many a lifelong soccer fan, the reality is that the Dutch have made a national rule of faltering in the decisive phases of the World Cup.
They have been perennial fan favorites with their orange colors, flashy players and legacy with the catchy name: "Total Football." But for all the Ruud Gullits, Marco van Bastens and Dennis Bergkamps through the years, they have not been in a World Cup final since 1978.
That paradoxical state of affairs ended Tuesday in the South African city the Dutch helped build with a 3-2 victory over Uruguay in the semifinals.
The game, a tightly played 1-1 contest through 70 minutes, ended with a three-minute flurry of ball movement and finishing in which this Dutch team's stars lived up to their name recognition: with lightweight playmaker Wesley Sneijder manufacturing a goal with a firm shot through heavy traffic, and with left wing Dirk Kuyt setting up the next goal in the 73rd with a cross that Arjen Robben headed off the inside of the left post.
Down 3-1, the Uruguayans, true to their spirit throughout this competition, would not go quietly, even with a lineup deeply diminished by injuries and the suspensions of fullback Jorge Fucile and star striker Luis Suarez. It was Suarez's handball on the goal line in the final moments of the quarterfinal against Ghana that led to his expulsion but also allowed Uruguay to have the chance to win.
But there would be no hand of God or Suarez or any other Uruguayan player Tuesday, and despite a goal in extra time from defender Maximiliano Pereira that turned the closing moments into a scramble, the Netherlands held just firm enough to win.
"You just keep your fingers crossed and hope everything goes well," coach Bert van Marwijk said.
The Netherlands and Spain are the strongest soccer nations never to win the sport's ultimate title. In Sunday's final, the Netherlands faces the winner of today's semifinal between Spain and Germany.
"If you win the final, you make yourself immortal, at least in our country," Robben said.
With Uruguay missing several starters because of injury or suspension, striker Diego Forlan wore the captain's armband in place of Diego Lugano and seemed determined to compensate for the absence of his normal forward partner, Suarez, and part of the first-team midfield.
After Giovanni van Bronckhorst scored a stunning first-half goal for the Netherlands, Forlan tied the score with a 25-yard shot. He was spreading passes from deep and threatening in the box.
Then, Sneijder and Robben scored, and a pain in his thigh that began before the semifinal became so unbearable that Forlan couldn't continue. Coach Oscar Tabarez replaced him in the 85th minute with Sebastian Fernandez.
"It's very disappointing," Forlan said. "We had chances, and we didn't take them. ... It's a shame because we lost a unique opportunity."