SAO PAULO (AP) — Another World Cup, another sad story for the Netherlands.
A tournament that began so brightly for the men in the vibrant orange shirts will end with a game their coach thinks is pointless and which the squad isn't really interested in playing.
"They can keep it," forward Arjen Robben said of the third-place game. "Only one prize counts and that is becoming world champion."
Reflecting their gloom, the Dutch squad began its preparations for Saturday's third-place match against host Brazil under dreary gray skies in Sao Paulo on Thursday, a day after a painful penalty shootout loss to Argentina in the semifinals ensured another missed opportunity.
Those subdued preparations involved a light workout in the drizzle at Pacaembu Stadium that lasted less than an hour before the players disappeared back down a flight of stairs and into the dressing room. Even the well-meaning and hearty cheers a group of Brazilians gave the players as they arrived for the training session probably won't have helped.
A month ago, the Dutch were flying high. A 5-1 win over world champion Spain announced them as the team to watch at the World Cup. That status faded gradually and the Netherlands only managed two goals in three games in the knockout stage, none in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
The elimination in a shootout at Itaquerao Stadium on Wednesday night means the crucial Dutch stats now read: Three World Cup finals, two semifinals, still no titles.
Coach Louis van Gaal, who takes charge of his country one more time before moving on to a new challenge with Manchester United, acknowledged that his team had initially been praised as the best at the tournament. Yet it counted for nothing in the end.
"In general, I'm not really interested in what people say about me and my team," Van Gaal said following the semifinal defeat. "It's a good thing if people are very positive ... but the issue in a championship like this one is that you score one more goal than your opponent, which we didn't do."