Greatest World Cup moments: Van Persie’s gravity-defying header

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Spain went into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on the back of winning the previous three major tournaments they had entered and a controversial decision from Diego Costa neatly summed up their prospects of making it four.

As Costa shot to prominence as the spearhead of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side that won La Liga and came within minutes of clinching the Champions League as well, he was at the centre of effectively an international transfer tussle.

The uncapped frontman was able to choose between being the number nine for his native Brazil, at a historic home World Cup or attempt to solve the striking problems that his adopted Spain were enduring and he chose the latter.

That underlines the extent to which Vicente del Bosque’s side were fancied to be the first European side to win the world crown on South American soil, despite being drawn in a relative group of death.


They came out of the hat alongside the Netherlands, hipsters’ favourites Chile and Australia but were expected to cruise through, going into their opening match against Louis van Gaal’s side.

The Dutch took Spain to extra time in the final four years previously but their side in 2014 was far from vintage.

Van Gaal agreed to become Manchester United manager prior to the tournament but pragmatically lined up his Dutch side in a 5-3-2 in Brazil; opting for safety in numbers to hide the deficiencies of a defence containing Ron Vlaar and Daryl Janmaat with a workmanlike midfield duo providing the bullets for aging stalwarts Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.

So when Xabi Alonso put the World Champions ahead in the first half of their opening match against the Dutch, it looked as if he had put his side on the way to a routine win.

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Spain were dominating possession and while Costa was struggling to offer the cutting edge he had been nationalised to supply, Holland had scarcely threatened as the first half meandered to a close.

Yet, with under two minutes of the opening period remaining, Daley Blind collected the ball just inside the Spain half. He had ten yards of space and time to lift his head off but only two speculative passing options.

The left-wing-back clipped the ball over Spain’s typically high line to find that van Persie had sprung the offside trap – Gerard Pique played him onside – but the dropping ball left the Manchester United striker with precious few options, even as he bore down on goal.

Necessity is the mother of invention and van Persie was forced to improvise. He produced a stunning, Superman-style header that had the power of a looping volley to leave Iker Casillas stranded.

It was a stunning, ingenious finish that shocked the world champions and saw the Dutch captain sprint to the dugout to celebrate with van Gaal, the man who was soon to be his club manager.

Man United fans across the globe must have licked their lips at the prospect of the pair linking up at Old Trafford and the second half saw their new manager oversee a dismantling of the world champions.

Spain imploded in the face of the Dutch counterpunching style – a complete departure from their Total Football roots – conceding four unanswered goals as Holland pulled off a result that sent shockwaves around the world.