SÃO PAULO – Regulation and overtime brought 120 minutes of scoreless exasperation in a World Cup semifinal on Wednesday that was by turns tense, cautious, clumsy, gripping and stubbornly unyielding.
There was little space to move, few chances to score. Sometimes the match was as dreary as the misty evening chill. If it possessed any beauty, it was not in gracefulness but in stark, struggling exertion.
And finally, when grind and strain and labor could not bring a resolution, whimsy and caprice did. Argentina defeated the Netherlands by 4-2 on penalty kicks and advanced to Sunday’s final against Germany.
Sergio Romero, Argentina’s goalkeeper, was poised in the shootout, unsettling the Dutch on the very first kick. He dived to his left, parried a shot by defender Ron Vlaar and kissed his gloves. Later, Romero repelled a shot by Wesley Sneijder and pounded his chest.
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For Argentina, Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Garay and Sergio Aguero confidently punched their shots into the net. The decisive attempt, by Maxi Rodriguez, was deflected, but it hit the underside of the cross bar and bounced into the net.
Messi took off in a jubilant, screaming run up the field as Argentina reached the championship game for the first time since 1990.
That long-ago night its opponent was West Germany, which even Diego Maradona could not find a way to beat. But that was forgotten on Wednesday as Argentine fans roared in delight and players removed their jerseys and twirled them in triumphant ecstasy.
“It’s luck, that’s the truth,” Romero said of the penalty kicks. “You can dive and not make it, like their goalkeeper did. I had confidence, and thank God things turned out well.”
The Netherlands had 12 goals in this World Cup, but its patient counterattacking style produced nothing in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Twice, the Dutch were taken to penalty kicks. In Saturday’s quarterfinal against Costa Rica, coach Louis van Gaal made a shrewd move, bringing on the reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul for the shootout. On Wednesday, though, van Gaal had already used his three substitutions, so he was forced to stay with Jasper Cillessen, who did not possess Krul’s reach or effective reaction.
After a demoralizing 7-1 defeat to Germany in Tuesday’s other semifinal, the people of Brazil received another blow on Wednesday when archrival Argentina advanced to the final instead.
Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986. Now it will seek a third title in, of all places, the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s most famous and prized arena.
Throughout this tournament, fans of Brazil and Argentina have heckled each other, comparing the relative merits of their idols, Pelé and Maradona. Now, Argentina gets to sing on the world’s biggest stage while Brazil must remain silent.
“If Brazil cannot be champion, I don’t want Argentina to be champion,” said Edgard Custodio, 37, a Brazilian fan.
At 27, Messi will have a chance in his third World Cup to take home his sport’s ultimate prize. And perhaps he will finally draw a full embrace by Argentine fans and an equal’s comparison to the great Maradona, who won a World Cup in 1986.
Messi has been superb, scoring four goals and carrying his team through arid moments. Coach Alejandro Sabella has called him “our water in the desert.”
• Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie ultimately came up empty-handed as the Netherlands ran out of steam. Robben had probably the best chance for the Dutch, but his goal-bound shot in injury time was agonizingly blocked.
Van Persie, the Netherlands captain, didn’t make the ensuing penalty shootout either.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.