JOHANNESBURG – After all the bluster about Brazil and the awe inspired by Germany, the World Cup comes down to two of the all-time underachievers playing for their first title.
Spain and the Netherlands, teams with long histories of wasting their biggest opportunities, meet today at Soccer City to conclude the first World Cup held in Africa.
What began as a celebration of this continent, then turned into a South American fiesta for two rounds, finishes off with one European country discarding its also-ran label.
“I am sure the Spanish can win any game because they are dominant and it’s hard to contain their attack,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said after his team lost 1-0 in the semifinals. “They have shown they can beat anyone.”
Perhaps. But …
“The Dutch can create a goal from any situation,” coach Oscar Tabarez said after his Uruguay squad allowed three to the Netherlands, one more than it gave up in the rest of the tournament. “They play some beautiful football.”
How nice it would be if this final featured just that: well-played, open, creative soccer. That’s what both the Dutch and Spaniards do best. So if coaches Bert van Marwijk and Vicente del Bosque don’t turn conservative all of a sudden, today’s showdown could turn into one entertaining shootout.
“I love attacking and beautiful football,” the Netherlands’ Van Marwijk said, “but you have to work together when the opponent has the ball and then you can go a long way.”
The Dutch have gone a long way in the World Cup before. They simply couldn’t finish it off in 1974 and 1978, losing in the final to host teams West Germany and Argentina. They carry one of the most impressive strings of success into the championship match that soccer has seen: 10 straight wins and 25 games without a loss. If they beat Spain, the Dutch will match Brazil’s 1970 accomplishment of sweeping all qualifying and World Cup games.
They have the tools. Midfielder Wesley Sneijder has been brilliant throughout the tournament and is tied with Spain striker David Villa for the scoring lead with five goals. The three-pronged unit up front of Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie matches up with any group anywhere.
“Holland is going to play its football,” Spain midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “That’s important, that everyone plays their own game and shows their cards.”
Obviously, turning the final into an offensive show makes sense for the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the Oranje, it might make even more sense for the Spaniards.
The European champions can match the Dutch in firepower with Villa, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente. They have the more experienced goalkeeper in Iker Casillas, making it more likely they would get the big saves when the Netherlands breaks through.
The Spanish don’t have the Netherlands’ winning streak, but they have lost only two games since November 2006 – both did come in South Africa, one in this tournament – and controlled the pace of the game against Germany in the semifinal.
Spain couldn’t have been more efficient with its well-structured passing game against the Germans, who played cautiously – not at all their style – and thus played right into the Spaniards’ hands. If Spain remains as patient and precise with the ball against the Dutch as it was in the semifinals, can the Oranje defense hold firm?
Van Marwijk has seen how the Spanish respond when the Jabulani winds up on opposing feet: “When they lose the ball, they immediately join in (to get it back). Their big stars, too.”
Not that the Dutch coach is conceding anything in that area.
“It is something we also do well,” Van Marwijk said.
The final, then, could come down to the playmakers and the finishers. Sneijder has been superb at both jobs, the most versatile individual performer at South Africa 2010. But Xavi and Iniesta have improved throughout the tournament, and Villa has bursts of energy combined with creativity that make him just as dangerous.
Most of Soccer City’s orange seats figure to be filled with, well, Oranje fans. Sneijder virtually promised they will go home happy.
“We won every qualifying game, every game here. We are not going to allow Spain to beat us now,” he said.
The Spaniards might have something to say about that.