Anatomy of a Classic Goal: Van Persie's diving header vs. Spain

As we eagerly await the return of world football, we’re taking this opportunity to look back on some of the most memorable goals ever scored. Going frame by frame, we’ll dissect how, exactly, these epic moments came to fruition.

Who, where, and when?

  • Goalscorer: Robin van Persie (Netherlands)
  • Match: Spain vs. Netherlands
  • Competition: 2014 World Cup (group stage)
  • Date: June 13, 2014

Heading into the 2014 World Cup, Spain was the dominant force in world football. The national team, built primarily around the suave passing of Barcelona’s core group, went back-to-back-to-back on the international stage, sandwiching a 2010 World Cup title between consecutive European Championship triumphs.

Nine of the 11 players who started the Euro 2012 final were on the pitch for Spain’s opening match against the Netherlands in Salvador, Brazil two years later. When Xabi Alonso opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, it looked as though the slick-passing machine was simply going to keep rolling.

Then it all fell apart, starting with Robin van Persie’s mesmerizing diving header just before halftime.

The Dutch scored four second-half goals en route to a 5-1 win, and Spain were eventually dumped from the competition in the group stage. The end of an era began, ostensibly, with Van Persie’s cranium.

To refresh your memory, here’s the spectacular tally:

Let’s examine the rapid sequence that allowed Van Persie, the Dutch national team’s all-time leading scorer, to deliver an indelible World Cup moment.

A split-second lapse in concentration

More than anything, Van Persie’s majestic strike highlights the dangers of switching off, even for a fraction of a second, at the top level of the sport.

When Daley Blind, standing right on the halfway line, receives a pass on the left side of the field, there are already a couple of issues you can spot with the Spanish defense.

During their aforementioned spell of dominance from 2008 to 2012, Spain suffocated the opposition with their aggressive pressing and high defensive line, compressing the field in an effort to win the ball back quickly after losing it. That worked wonders throughout their trophy-laden run, but it bit Spain in the backside against the Oranje.

Unless it’s coupled with intense pressure on the ball carrier, a high defensive line can be a disaster. That’s precisely what happened here.

With no natural wingers on the field and a narrow setup, Blind was able to receive the ball with virtually nobody around him. Sergio Busquets, who rarely saunters away from the center of the pitch, is the closest Spanish player to the left-footed Dutchman when the sequence begins.

FIFA TV / theScore Illustration

That’s the first problem. The second, as illustrated above, is the brief lapse in concentration from Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba, allowing Van Persie to run between them. On the surface, that alone isn’t so bad.

But Ramos never looks over his shoulder to check on Van Persie, and we can only presume Alba didn’t communicate the danger with the center-back. Van Persie recognizes the opportunity, and roughly a second after Blind gets the ball, the striker is darting into the chasm of space behind the two defenders.

Getting caught out of position

The other big issue for Spain was Gerard Pique, the typically imperious Barcelona defender.

Ramos shoulders plenty of blame here, but Pique’s positioning is downright atrocious. Alba, Ramos, and right-back Cesar Azpilicueta form a tidy offside line. Were it not for Pique, who’s inexcusably about five yards deeper than all of them, Van Persie would have been flagged offside when Blind launches the ball.

FIFA TV / theScore Illustration

Yes, Arjen Robben is in the equation, but there’s no reason for Pique to be so far removed from the line his teammates create.

Again, this all happens extremely fast. Blind has his limitations as a footballer – namely, his distinct lack of pace – but his left foot is magical, and it’s on full display when he drops an absolute dime onto Van Persie’s head.

Hesitation between the sticks

Despite all the mistakes Spain made to this point, there was still an opportunity for Iker Casillas to bail out his defenders.

Blind’s pass travels at least 40 yards in the air. By the standards of these fine-tuned athletes, the decorated shot-stopper was given ample time to rush off his line and either punch the ball away or snatch it.

He was already off his line when Blind launched the long pass. Had he aggressively – and immediately – rushed out, this discussion might not be possible.

FIFA TV / theScore Illustration

Instead, he hesitates. If anything, Casillas backtracks a couple of steps by the time the ball meets Van Persie’s head.

At that point, he’s in no man’s land. He’s not far out enough to meet the ball in the air, and he’s too far out for a chance to stop the ensuing header.


This is the distressed look of someone who knows he’s toast:


If you look closely, you can actually pinpoint the second his heart rips in half.

Hup Holland Hup

The goal, which set the stage for the spellbinding second half that followed, was so great that even the notoriously stern Louis van Gaal was wide-eyed.

Ian Walton / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Some feat, that.

Incredibly, James Rodriguez’s magnificent volley that came later in the same tournament beat Van Persie in the race for the 2014 Puskas Award. The 2014 World Cup truly was one for the ages.

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