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.
Whatever happens, soccer will open the doors to an exclusive club for just the second time in three decades.
Since the inaugural competition 80 years ago, Brazil, Italy or Germany have won 12 of the 18 championships. Argentina and Uruguay have combined for four, and England and France have claimed one apiece.
“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 to Spain, 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.”
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 successive finals to host teams West Germany and Argentina.
They come into the final on an impressive run: 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.
“I love attacking and beautiful football,” the Netherlands’ Bert van Marwijk said, “but you have to work together when the opponent has the ball and then you can go a long way.”
They have the tools. Midfielder Wesley Sneijder has been brilliant throughout the tournament. He is tied with Spain’s David Villa, Uruguay’s Diego Forlan and Germany’s Thomas Mueller 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.”
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, though Maarten Stekelenburg has made some big saves for Holland.
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. 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 .
“It is something we also do well,” Van Marwijk said.
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.
“They are the best team in the world at this moment,” van Marwijk said of the Spaniards.