The Dutch were outnumbered.
Argentina had one Lionel Messi and the Netherlands had none.
And still, the Oranje came back and forced extra time in a World Cup quarterfinal for the ages by scoring in the 83rd minute and then on a playground-type restart in the 11th — yes, 11th! — minute of second-half stoppage time.
When Argentina escaped with a 4-3 penalty-kicks win following a 2-2 draw Saturday to reach a semifinal against Croatia, the Dutch crumpled to the field in their glaring orange uniforms, looking like a withered citrus grove. Wout Weghorst, at 6-foot-6, was flat on his back in the center circle as Messi danced with teammates in front of tens of thousands of singing supporters.
“They gave everything, and I’m incredibly proud,” coach Louis van Gaal said. “They did everything they could to prevent this from happening.”
A nation that gave the world Total Football a half-century ago remains with a total of zero World Cup titles, still looking up at Brazil (five), Germany and Italy (four each), Argentina, France and Uruguay (two apiece) and England and Spain.
A renowned innovator with coaches who attract youth prospects from around the world, the Netherlands has lost three World Cup finals. The Dutch took an early lead in 1974 before losing to host West Germany 2-1 and they were back in the championship match four years later only to lose to host Argentina 3-1 in extra time.
Their next generation won a European Championship title in 1988 with Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten leading them over the Soviet Union 2-0. But the big prize still eluded the Dutch.
Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie led them to another final in 2010 but they lost 1-0 in extra time to a superior Spain, then were beaten by Messi and Argentina in the 2014 semifinals on penalty kicks. Back in the World Cup this year after failing to qualify for 2018, they entered the quarterfinal with a 19-game unbeaten streak.
There were just 1,400 Dutch fans who stuck out in their bright jerseys among a crowd of 88,235, about 90 percent in Argentina’s blue-and-white-striped jerseys with Messi’s No. 10 on the back.
Messi’s sublime no-look pass set up Nahuel Molina’s 35th-minute goal, and Messi doubled the lead when he converted a penalty kick in the 73rd after Denzel Dumfries pushed Marcos Acuña at the edge of the penalty area.
“I think that penalty was awarded rather easily,” Van Gaal said.
Taking aim at a tall task, Van Gaal opted for height. He inserted Weghorst, who headed a Steven Berghuis cross past Emiliano Martínez in the 83rd.
Benches cleared five minutes later on a night of a World Cup record 17 yellow cards plus a postgame red.
And then came the biggest twist of all. After Germán Pezzella fouled Weghorst to give the Dutch a free kick from 22 yards, Teun Koopmeiners started a play seen in training but almost never in games: He sent a low kick along the ground into the wall, where Weghorst took a touch, spun and sent the ball past Martínez.
And that’s where the score remained after extra time, after the drama of Enzo Fernández hitting a post in the second extra period’s stoppage time.
“We thought that we would be able to win when it came to penalties,” Van Gaal said.
Captain Virgil van Dijk took the first and Martínez dived right to push the ball away. After Messi converted, Martínez sprawled left to deny Berghuis.
When Enzo Fernández put his try off a post, the Dutch had an opening, but Lautaro Martínez sent his kick to the right of keeper Andries Noppert, who dived left.
As the celebration extended, Messi and Van Gaal exchanged words.
“This was my very last match,” said Van Gaal, ending his third term in charge of the Oranje. “I look back in a positive way.”
He was asked to assess his performance and mentioned the team’s 20-game unbeaten streak.
“I don’t know how many we won (14), but you check all that. I think it’s Google,” he said. “Dutch team and Louis van Gaal and goal difference.”