JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The Dutch had an angel in their corner.
She was sitting in the front row at Soccer City Stadium on Monday afternoon, blonde hair and sunglasses topping off an ankle-length orange dress. But it was her wings that caught the eye.
At one point, just before the Netherlands kicked off against Denmark, she stood to pose for the television cameras, turning to show the orange angel wings affixed to her back.
Dutch fans are a colorful and creative lot, and she was no exception.
As it turned out, the Netherlands needed an angel. Despite the presence of such stars as Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart, they struggled to overcome a game but outclassed Danish team, 2-0.
In the first half, however, the Dutch performance was flatter than the Dutch landscape. There was nothing to suggest that this was a team that went undefeated through World Cup qualifying.
The winning goal, which came in the first minute of the second half, was a gift from above.
Van Persie floated an innocuous cross in from the left flank and Danish defender Simon Poulsen rose to head the ball clear but instead powered it off the back of teammate Daniel Agger and into the net.
The own goal, the first of the tournament, was the breakthrough the Dutch needed and it left Poulsen stunned.
"I was just thinking, this can't be happening," he said.
Afterward, Coach Morten Olsen, who praised the "good effort" by his players against the favored Dutch, refused to blame the defender.
"Poulsen was one of our best players," he said. "It happens in the career of every player. It happened to me once. It wasn't really his fault. He just has to forget it and look forward."
Having taken the lead, the Netherlands began playing with more confidence, but still without the flair and creativity of which it is capable. In fact, it was not until livewire winger Eljero Elia was sent on as a substitute in the 67th minute that things perked up a bit.
"He played a wonderful role," Sneijder said. "He was very important to us."
The Netherlands worked to get a second goal and came close in the 82nd minute when Sneijder had a deflected shot skip off the top of the Danish crossbar. Five minutes before the end, the long-sought goal arrived and, not surprisingly, it was Elia who created it.
His diagonal shot slammed into the foot of the right post, beyond the reach of goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, and Dirk Kuyt rushed in to poke the rebound home.
With the victory secured, the Dutch began stroking the ball around the field with aplomb. It wasn't exactly show time but it did make a point.
"After the second goal you could see what we are capable of doing," Coach Bert van Marwijk said. "The players were relieved. I was relieved.
"I've been thinking about the first game for a long, long time. It's always very tough. Denmark is a very difficult opponent and therefore you cannot afford to make mistakes. In this phase you've got to be patient. I am really, really pleased with this victory."
The Netherlands was without injured winger Arjen Robben, who hopes to be back later in the 32-nation tournament, but the suggestion that the Dutch played indifferently without him was rejected by Sneijder.
"We won, 2-0, so there you go," he said. "You can hardly say we missed him. Arjen is an exceptional player who on his own can make a difference. . . . But we've got a couple of them."
Van Marwijk concurred.
"We never panicked," he said. "We're very creative, sometimes arrogant, but that makes us strong."
Said Olsen: "The Dutch are not the favorite but are certainly an outsider to win the World Cup. They have wonderful players."
By the time Kuyt's goal shook the back of the Danish net, the angel in the corner was long gone, but the impression left behind was that she or some similar guiding light will be needed if the Netherlands is to be back at Soccer City on July 11 for the World Cup final.