When Louis van Gaal entered the interview room at the Corinthians Arena on Wednesday night following the Netherlands’ heart-breaking shoot-out defeat to Argentina, one of the first things the Dutch manager mentioned was to lament how he had taught Sergio Romero to save penalties.
Van Gaal, who was actually a midfielder when he played, was implying in a wry manner that this is how the goalkeeper he brought to Europe from Argentina in 2007 chooses to thank him. However, it also made you wonder why van Gaal had not taken the same trouble with his own international goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, whose record at saving penalties in senior football has now stretched to no successful stops from 20 kicks faced. Romero, by contrast, is now being feted in Argentina. Footage has emerged of Javier Mascherano urging his teammate to think positively before the shoot-out: “Today you’ll make yourself a hero!” the midfielder tells him. Since a Monaco reserve keeper is not supposed to cast Lionel Messi into the shadows, Romero has now been dubbed “the accidental hero”. Significantly, he has also been described as inheriting a mantle reserved for only very special performers for La Abiceleste.
The Argentine daily newspaper Diario Hoy hailed Romero’s “hands of God”. This is of course reference to one of the two goals Diego Maradona scored against England at the Mexico World Cup in 1986. This sobriquet was also passed four years later to Sergio Goycochea, the goalkeeper who started Italia ‘90 as back-up to Nery Pumpido and then seized his opportunity when the then No 1 choice was injured. Goyocochea kept a clean sheet in the second round victory over Brazil before saving penalties in the quarter-final and semi-final shoot-out victories over Yugoslavia and Italy. Under the headline “Los Manos de Dios”, Diario Hoy’s summary of the action as Argentina overcome the Netherlands read: “After a goalless draw in 120 minutes, in which [Javier] Mascherano excelled, Chiquito Romero (a la Sergio Goycochea in 1990) emerged as the great figure to keep out the penalties of Vlaar and Sneijder. Thus, Alejandro Sabella’s team reached a fifth World Cup final and will go for glory against Germany on Sunday in the Maracana.”
Romero has become revered in Argentina not only because he has has saved two penalties – although, even he will admit, these headline-grabbing feats will have had most to do with it. Romero has only been beaten on three occasions in six games in Brazil. During this World Cup Romero has now kept three successive clean sheets as well as become only the second Argentinian goalkeeper to win over 50 caps. So why did he play only three league games last season for Monaco? Why is he on loan at Monaco from Sampdoria in the first place? The goalkeeper whose form in France has restricted Romero to only a few league and cup appearances is Danijel Subasic, who was only back-up for Croatia in Brazil. Such an unpromising situation at club level saw Romero’s international place appear to be in serious doubt. Manager Alejandro Sabello’s decision to stay loyal to Romero despite such a lack of first-team action was openly questioned in Argentina. Many pushed for new Manchester City signing Willy Caballero’s inclusion. Julian Speroni, who performed such heroics with Crystal Palace last season, was also rumoured to be set for a call-up for one of Argentina’s pre-World Cup friendlies.
However, Sabella has kept his faith in Romero, which is why the 27-year-old goalkeeper pointedly thanked his own manager as well as Van Gaal following the victory on Wednesday night. He credited Sabella for giving him belief in himself, while he credited Van Gaal for not only helping him become proficient in penalty-saving but also for making him feel at home in the Netherlands, in his first career move from Argentina. “Van Gaal spoke to me in Spanish and that was important for me to get through my first tough period,” he said.
Van Gaal won’t feel quite so clever now. Having already committed all three substitutes on Wednesday, the Dutch manager was forced to continue with Cillessen in goal for the shoot-out. It was something he later candidly admitted he would preferred had not been the case. Robin Van Persie, however, was struggling badly and had to be replaced in extra-time, hampered by the effects of a stomach bug. Van Gaal felt there was a chance replacement Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could grab a goal. However, it wasn’t to be. As one German newspaper unkindly put it, Van Gaal would have been better sending on penalty-saving specialist Tim Krul for Van Persie, as the goalkeeper would also have stood a better chance of scoring the winner than the anonymous Huntelaar.
So as Cillessen grapsed thin air in ever more desperate attempts to save a penalty for the first time, it was left to Romero to become the hero.
Of course, the focus on his penalty saving technique, or lack of it, overlooks the fact that Cillessen has kept two successive clean sheets at this highly-pressurised stage of the World Cup. With both of the Netherlands’ last two games going to extra-time, it means Cillessen’s goal has not been breached in just under 315 minutes of football – not since Mexico’s Giovani dos Santos rifled home from the edge of the area in the 48th minute of the teams’ last-16 clash. But because he has saved two penalties, Romero has commandeered the headlines. His hands are now being described as the hands of God. It is something Cillessen, the non-penalty-saving international goalkeeper, might now be reflecting upon.