Denilson, Edwin van der Sar, and the Penalty Kick that Never Happened

By: Greg Oldfield, special to the Florida Cup

Soccer is a game of fates. In the 1998 World Cup semifinal between Brazil and Holland, Denilson, the twenty-one-year-old Brazilian phenom stood among his teammates at midfield as the final kicker in the penalty shootout. Across the field, Edwin van der Sar, Holland’s most-capped goalkeeper, watched as his teammate Ronald de Boer stepped up to the penalty spot. Millions of fans held their breath. Two of the greatest teams in a generation had just played to a dramatic 1-1 tie after one hundred and twenty minutes of the highest quality soccer, and now their fates were being decided by twelve yards of grass.

De Boer shot to his left. Taffarel guessed correct and pushed the ball away with both hands. Brazil were on to the finals. And Denilson never took his penalty.

Just over 20 years later, fates would again collide on the Florida Cup Mini Arena Soccer Grass turf inside Universal Studios. Denilson and van der Sar met prior to their Legends 5 vs 5 match, which featured a number of stars from São Paulo, Ajax, Flamengo, and Eintracht Frankfurt, to decide what could have happened if de Boer’s shot had found the back of the net.

The 1998 World Cup semifinal was one of the marquee match ups of the tournament. Brazil, the defending World Cup Champions, topped Group A with wins over Scotland (2-1) and Morocco (3-0) before losing to Norway 2-1. They dispatched Chile 4-1 in the second round and Denmark 3-2 in the quarterfinals. Holland opened the group stage with a 0-0 draw with Belgium, a 5-0 victory over South Korea, and a 2-2 draw with Mexico, topping Group E with a better goal differential over Mexico. They defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 in the second round then Argentina 2-1 in the quarterfinals.

Tied 1-1 after regulation, and following two goalless fifteen-minute overtime periods, the stage was set for the decisive penalty shootout. Ronaldo sent van der Sar the wrong way to take the lead, and Frank de Boer shot past Taffarel’s hands to even it at 1-1. Rivaldo and Bergkamp both scored, and Emerson made it 3-2. Phillip Cocu’s shot was stopped by Taffarel, and Dunga’s shot rose above van der Sar’s outstretched hands to make it 4-2, leading to Ronald de Boer’s fateful penalty.

Brazil went onto the final where they lost 3-0 to France. Holland lost to World Cup darlings Croatia 2-1 in the third place match. Denilson left São Paulo for Real Betis that summer, a £21.5 million transfer that was the most expensive at that time. He spent his career in Spain, France, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. before returning to Brazil. Van der Sar left Ajax in 1999 and spent two seasons in Italy before a lengthy stay in England.

The two players never crossed paths again until Tuesday.

Twelve yards away, on a much smaller field, a third-of-the-normal-size goal, with thousands of cheering fans, some of whom who’d never been born when the two players would have met for the first time, Denilson and van der Sar finally decided the unknown outcome.

Denilson struck the ball clean and powerful with his legendary left foot.

The ball sailed wide to the left and into the crowd.

Luckily, for Brazil fans, fate had already been decided in this case.

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