PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa — Inspired by Wesley Sneijder, the Netherlands upset Brazil, 2-1, at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Friday to reach the World Cup semifinals.
Sneijder now has three goals and three man-of-the-match awards and is emerging as one of the star players of the tournament. He headed the second-half winner after a Felipe Melo own goal had canceled out Robinho’s 10th-minute opener.
Melo’s nightmare continued when he was sent-off for stamping on Arjen Robben as the pre-tournament favorites lost their cool and crashed out.
It was the ninth straight win for the Netherlands, which advances to the semifinals in Cape Town on Tuesday unbeaten in 24 games.
Huge celebrations broke out in the stadium and across the Netherlands at the final whistle, and confidence surged in the team following their convincing second-half display.
“When I was hired, I told the guys we have a mission — we want to go for the world championship,” victorious coach Bert Van Marwijk said. “People mocked me for that, but if you want to go for something you have to believe in it and this was one of the matches when you can see everything come into place.”
Man-of-the-Match Sneijder hailed the incredible turnaround saying: “In the second half, we knew we had to improve things and put more pressure on the Brazilian defense.
“If you get opportunities, you have to take them and play as though it is the last 45 minutes of the whole tournament.”
Team captains Lucio and Giovanni van Bronckhorst read out statements condemning all forms of discrimination before the start of the game.
But after that harmonious prelude, battle commenced and the game was testy throughout.
The outstanding Robinho made a bright start and thought he had put Brazil ahead when he converted Dani Alves’ cross. But the Barcelona player had been in an offside position before he supplied the assist.
Robinho had the ball in the net again on 10 minutes and this time there was no flag and Brazil led: Melo played the pass of the World Cup through the middle of the Dutch defense, Robinho ran on to it, unmarked, and buried a low first-time shot past Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
The Dutch tried to respond immediately and Dirk Kuyt forced a corner with a shot that Julio Cesar had to turn around his right post.
The Netherlands should have had defender John Heitinga sent off in the 14th minute as he blatantly tripped Luis Fabiano to stop the defender running on to another defense-splitting pass. But Heitinga was only booked. And then it was Gilberto Silva’s turn to escape punishment from Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura after he up-ended Arjen Robben as the ill feeling continued.
Sneijder was trying to inspire the Dutch, but Brazil continued to look dangerous.
Inter Milan midfielder Sneijder then tested Julio Cesar with a free-kick from distance, but Robben’s first-half nightmare continued.
He was kicked by Michel Bastos, who was booked, and then wasted the Netherland’s last attack of the half when he received the ball in space but ran into a crowd of defenders.
The Netherlands came out revived in the second period.
“I told them we have to determine our rhythm and speed and then we were more professional, more clever in our response,” Van Marwijk said.
Bastos was lucky to not pick up his second yellow for a foul on Robben in the 52nd minute. When the free-kick was pulled back to Sneijder, his long floated ball went into the box and was completely misjudged by Julio Cesar and went in off the top of defender Melo’s head.
Kaka then shot wide for the five-time champions, but it was now the Netherlands in the ascendancy and on 68 minutes they were ahead: Sneijder was unlucky not to be credited with the first goal, but there was no doubt that the second was his.
Robben swung over the corner, Kuyt flicked the ball on at the near post and the Dutch hero headed in for his third goal of the tournament.
“It was my first headed goal and I don’t think it will happen again, but it was great,” Sneijder said.
Brazil, unused to being behind, lost its composure just when it needed it most. Melo then stamped on Robben and was a shown the red card.
The 10-man tournament favorite pressed forward desperately, and after Stekelenburg made a complete mess of a Maicon corner that Kuyt had to save his keeper with a diving clearance.
Kuyt could have calmed Dutch nerves at the other end, but after going past Maicon and Lucio, he allowed Juan to get back and make the clearance. It did not matter as the Netherlands held on for a famous comeback and a well-deserved victory.
“We never prepare our teams to lose — so obviously this nervousness surfaced because we were losing,” said Brazilian coach Carlos Dunga.
“Many of our players looked at this World Cup as a great opportunity to do well, so there was a great degree of nervousness and when the passes didn’t go well this led to anxiety on the part of the players,” said Dunga.
The Associated Press / Andy Goldberg