When defender Frank De Boer of the Netherlands unspooled a long, arcing pass toward teammate Dennis Bergkamp last Saturday in sunbaked Marseilles, the resulting goal was less an example of sublime art than an affirmation of their country's return to the soccer elite. Two years ago no one could have foreseen the 90th-minute goal that defeated Argentina 2-1, least of all Bergkamp, the rejuvenated forward who resembles the rock star Sting.
The win put the Oranje into the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1978, and it also immortalized Bergkamp, who had been known mainly for his steadfast refusal to travel by airplane and his lackluster performance with the Italian club Inter Milan from 1993 to '95. While his fear of flying persists—the Dutch players arrived in Marseilles by train, thank you—his stock has skyrocketed since he was transferred to Arsenal in 1995. Last season he was the player of the year in England's Premier League.
Holland coach Guus Hiddink credits Bergkamp's revival to discovering a joy in soccer that runs counter to the Dutch temperament. "In our country it's dangerous to tell players to enjoy the game, because a lot of people will say, 'Oh, they're getting nonchalant,' " Hiddink said last Saturday. "But if they are enjoying the game, they play like they should. Right now Dennis is enjoying the game."
So, too, is Edgar Davids, the Juventus midfielder whose future with the national team once appeared hazier than an Amsterdam hash bar. During the '96 European championships, Hiddink sent Davids home after he alleged that the coach favored the team's white players. Davids rejoined the team for Cup qualifying after apologizing to Hiddink, and his nascent maturity showed when he kept quiet after riding the bench in Holland's Cup opener against Belgium. Last week Davids was the player of the tournament, scoring the game-winner late in a second-round, 2-1 win over Yugoslavia and owning the midfield against Argentina.
According to midfielder Ronald De Boer, Frank's twin, the team's newfound harmony can be traced to two speeches by Hiddink—one before the start of qualifying and the other on the eve of the tournament—in which he outlined what Ronald calls the rules. "The most important rule is that we must play with 22 players, not 11," Ronald says. "If you're not in the starting 11, then you can be disappointed, but don't react to the other players. Be positive. Everyone knows there's only one goal, and that's to have the gold thing in our hands."
In the postgame interview room last Saturday, Davids accidentally bumped into Hiddink, who turned and threw his arm around the midfielder's thick shoulders. The two men smiled, revealing a joy in soccer that seemed perfectly natural, if imperfectly Dutch.
Luigi Di Biagio was wiping away tears a half hour after the misfire. "I'm sorry," he said last Friday, after his penalty kick had hit the crossbar, sending France past Italy in the quarterfinals. "This is the worst feeling ever." Such sadness was nothing new to Italy, which has exited the last three Cups on penalties. "When you go out this way, you think it's not the right way to settle a game," said midfielder Roberto Di Matteo.
Yet even in the wake of the horrid '94 final, a scoreless draw decided by penalties, FIFA has done little to resolve a similar situation should it unfold in Sunday's championship game. The most obvious solution would be to keep playing until someone scores. When asked about that possibility last week, FIFA head spokesman Keith Cooper looked as if he had swallowed sour milk. "Impossible," he said. "You would be putting an unbelievable physical burden on the players. Penalty kicks have to be the ultimate tiebreaker."