Every World Cup final since the quadrennial tournament began in 1930 has involved at least one of just four teams: Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina. That this year’s final will break that 80-year quadropoly is cause for celebration: Either Spain or Holland will win the World Cup for the first time on Sunday at Johannesburg’s Soccer City on Sunday. (The last time a country won the cup for the first time was France in 1998 — thanks to commenters for pointing that out — before that Argentina in 1978.) Of Sunday’s contestants, the Dutch have the greater pedigree, having twice lost the final (in 1974 and 1978) to palpably inferior sides (Germany and Argentina respectively). But Spain are reigning European champions, and were ranked favorites to win the 2010 World Cup by many pundits ahead of the tournament [EM] to be sure, anyone who had read most pre-World Cup predictions and then tuned out the tournament till the final game would be a lot more surprised to find Holland on the field than they would be to see Spain there. Indeed, even the Dutch team’s management had expected an earlier exit — they didn’t book hotel accommodation in South Africa beyond July 5.
Not that Holland was lacking stature: On the contrary, they arrived in South Africa on the back of a 23-game unbeaten run, the only team that managed to maintain a 100% record in the qualifying campaign. Their lavishly talented attacking trio of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder were clearly going to pose a major threat to most rivals, while the likes of the steely duo of Van Bommel and De Jongh at the base of the midfield would screen an unremarkable defense from excessive interrogation by opposing forwards. The problem, most pundits predicted, was that the luck of the draw had determined that they would face the mighty Brazil in the Quarterfinals, should both teams win all their games — which they did. And conventional wisdom held that Holland’s considerable talents would be no match for those of Brazil, whom most had picked to be the ones facing Spain in the final.
But two weeks into the tournament, there were reasons to doubt that the Brazilians would live up to their promise, and in the end, Holland outplayed them with a combination of workmanlike midfield harrying and an attacking verve that repeatedly revealed the Brazilians’ weak spots. Eventually, Brazil simply imploded, and the plucky men in orange marched on. The Dutch have hardly been dominant — once deemed the Brazilians of Europe for their extravagant attacking displays (which seldom won anything), today’s version is built on foundations of defensive solidity and hard work: The two players that have shone brightest for the Dutch in game after game have been Wesley Sneijder, the Inter Milan playmaker who quarterbacks most of their attacking play, and Dirk Kuyt, a fan favorite at his club Liverpool precisely because he covers more ground and sheds more sweat than any other player on the pitch, providing more assists than goals and tracking all the way to his own penalty areas to provide occasionally crucial defensive interventions.
This Dutch team has hardly dominated its opponents — Uruguay were dispatched by a margin of 3-2 in the semifinal — although in none of their games did they appear in any serious danger of losing. Like the Brazilians they sucker punched, this Dutch team emphasized efficiency over their more artful traditional game. But it will take a Herculean effort to repeat the feat against the other tournament favorite on Sunday. Because in swatting aside a German team so rampant that it had three times scored four goals in a game during the tournament, the Spanish suggested that they were only just getting going.
Despite concerns that the hard-running young Germans could rattle Spain’s possession game, the men in the red shirts once again conducted a passing master class: Their confidence in possession is terrifying — Spain more than once took short free kicks to players who had an opposition defender literally on their backs, the gesture showing their players’ confidence in holding on to the ball no matter how close the opposition got. On the rare occasion that they lost it, they simply grabbed it back within a split second. And in the process, they played some gorgeous attacking football with little flicks and feints putting their players through — although that sometimes maddening Spanish habit of seeking to pass the ball all the way into the net rather than sometimes simply pulling the trigger was occasionally in evidence.
Coach Del Bosque’s decision to bench the misfiring Liverpool striker Fernando Torres and instead field the young Barcelona attacking midfielder Pedro looked to be a masterstroke as he repeatedly unlocked the German defense with sublime passing and runs, although he was guilty of the mistake of the game when he chose to go for glory rather than slip the ball inside to the better-placed Torres (on for the hard working David Villa) to score the second that would have made the game safe.
Spain, with their embarrassment of riches in all the key attacking positions — Fabregas, Llorente and Navas didn’t even make it on as subs against the Germans — and their growing confidence will surely start Sunday’s game as favorites. But the Dutch know that starting as favorites can be a psychological burden, having twice lost World Cup finals from the same position. The world, and the home fans, simply expect Spain to bring home the trophy; the Dutch fans are pleasantly surprised to find their own team in the final. Holland can play with the freedom of the underdog on Sunday, and they have the resources to punish Spain — particularly the speed of Robben on the right wing against Capdevilla, and also the pace and close control through the middle of Van Persie. And, of course, the guile and creativity of Sneijder who is every bit a peer to the Spanish supremos Xavi and Iniesta.
The weight of expectation could drag Spain down. On the other hand, they could legitimately argue that they’re just beginning to find their rhythm. If both teams play at their best, you’d have to give the edge to Spain. But as the legendary English striker and pundit Jimmy Greaves was fond of saying, it’s a funny old game, eh?
Anything is possible. Uruguay beat Ghana because of a foul in the final minute. Holland beat Brazil because Felipe Melo got in his goalkeeper’s way, and then later, let his demons take over and got himself sent off for a violent foul. Every Dutch fan knows that had Rob Rensenbrink been just inches to the left with his shot that hit a post at 1-1 in the final minutes in 1978, Holland would have beaten Argentina — which won 3-1 in extra time. If there had been a half-competent referee when Spain played South Korea in the quarterfinals in 2002, Spain, not the hosts, would have gone on to meet Germany in the semifinal, and who knows after that?And so on. In football, as in life, the future is unwritten.
Which is why hundreds of millions of people around the world will be glued to their TV sets when the game kicks off 2.30pm (EST).