Battle to rule the world

The summit match will witness a clash between teams with similar styles

Battle to rule the world

It wil be a battle of equals between the Netherlands and first-time World Cup final entrants Spain  at the Soccer City Stadium on Sunday, with captains Giovanni van Bronckhorst (right) and Iker Casillas leading from the front.

And then there were two. In the 64th game of a tournament that has stretched our imagination and at times bewildered our ability to know what is coming next, two very decent teams, the Netherlands and Spain, will contest the World Cup final of 2010.
Who will win the prize Sunday in Soccer City stadium here?

 Spain has the talent and depth, along with masterful passing skills, and never holds onto the ball too long. The Netherlands always has hope when Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are within shooting distance.

And whether the fireworks at the end are in Dutch orange or Spanish red, the result will be a first in the 80-year history of the World Cup: neither nation has ever won it, despite their both being steeped in the sport.

More than that, each has sought to imprint its own style of soccer. For as long as anyone can remember, Spain has believed that to love the game is to love the ball. This Spanish side, two-thirds of it from the Barcelona school, follows that belief to excess, and to excellence.

The Dutch team at this tournament tell themselves, and tell us, that they still have faith in the Total Football of Johan Cruyff era. But they tell themselves that winning comes before expression, and that, if need be, they are prepared to grind out a victory.

The Dutch have lost two finals — to West Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978. Both were on the home turf of the opponents, and both had elements of the Dutch belief that their talents would prevail no matter what.

This new Dutch bloom, unbeaten in the past 25 contests and with a perfect record at this World Cup, has been urged by its coach, Bert van Marwijk, to earn the victory and only then to marvel at the achievement. It is a basic maxim, but the Netherlands has yet to follow it through to the end of any World Cup.

This Dutch team’s style is somewhat less expansive that the Total style, where every man on the team could pop up at any position he chose. But if it is more structured, more tough-minded than in the 1970s, can the tactical Dutch gain sufficient ball possession from the talented Spanish? That, as Germany found in its loss on Wednesday, is the hardest part of playing against Spain.

Xavi Hernández is capable of spinning a pass a minute, with four out of five of them uncannily accurate. His teammates, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodríquez, if he plays, know exactly what Xavi’s range is.

They have done it a thousand times in training. They were reared to it, and reared alongside one another, from childhood in the Barcelona youth academy, La Masia. But it is a little bit more than Barcelona. Real Madrid supplies the goalie, Iker Casillas, the cavalier right back Sergio Ramos and the extra midfield man, again a pass master, Xabi Alonso.

And this amalgam of Spain’s top two clubs, deep rivals in La Liga, is encouraged through another long-running youth structure. It is the one that Spain’s soccer federation has run for decades, through the under-16 to under-21 squads that have won major trophies in Europe and beyond.

The trick that has, thus far, eluded the Spanish is turning age-restricted success into belief at the level of a World Cup. The Dutch, you might say, have been guilty of overconfidence, Spain of lacking that extra dimension to claim what their youth is groomed for.

This time, Spain does have at both ends of the field men who might be described as winners, even warriors. Carles Puyol does not say a lot, but he has won almost every major soccer trophy as Barcelona’s captain. David Villa has the cold-eyed look of an old Wild West sharp shooter, and before the semifinal he had scored five of the six goals Spain netted in this tournament.

What he was missing, and what Spain still hopes for, is a goal from his natural hunting partner, Fernando Torres. The coach, Vicente del Bosque, has tried to give Torres time on the field to recapture the cutting edge he possessed before surgery on his damaged knee only three months ago.

Without that double act, Spain’s possession has dazzled, but its penetration has been barely a goal a game.

The scorers for the Dutch side, Robben and Sneijder, are anything but conventional strikers. Robben raids from the wing and fires his shots with stunning left-footed velocity. Sneijder emerges from midfield, where he runs from penalty box to penalty box, shooting when opponents least expect it. Both of them have surprised even themselves by heading goals despite the fact that neither stands much above 1.8 meters, or 5-foot-10.

Less outstanding, possibly, but as important to how the Dutch will play this final, are Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. They are the dogs of war, the ball winners, the men who must stop the Spanish from building rhythm.

The arbiter Sunday is another surprise in this endlessly surprising World Cup. He is the Englishman Howard Webb, and there is precedence for Webb’s showing leniency in extremis toward van Bommel’s roughing up of talented Spanish players. Webb allowed some obvious fouling by van Bommel when he played for Bayern Munich against Barcelona in the Champions League. If similar license is given in Soccer City, van Bommel will take it.

But, risking one more wrong prediction in this event, Spain can win this. Its record is two lost matches in 53, and apart from what it lines up at the start, its bench is brimming with talent — Cesc Fàbregas, David Silva, either Torres or Rodríquez — who could walk into any other team’s starting line-up. A defender scored the goal that got Spain to its first World Cup final, and any one of its fine substitutes could be summoned to score the defining goal in its history.

The New York Times

All about the finalists

Venue: Soccer City, Johannesburg. Capacity: 88,000

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD AT WC

Never played each other in the WC

WORLD CUP RECORD
                        P      W        D    L    GS
Netherlands    40     20     10    10     67
Spain                55    27     12     16    85

P-Played; W-won; D-Draw;L-Lost; GS-Goals scored

LIKELY FORMATION

Netherlands  4-2-3-1                Spain 4-2-3-1

KEY STATS

Spain can become the first side to win the WC after losing their opening match in the tournament.

Netherlands can equal can equal the record of the 1970 Brazilian team, who lifted the trophy after winning all their WC qualifying and finals matches.

KEY PLAYERS

Netherlands

Arjen Robben: The flying winger missed the first two group matches after picking up a hamstring injury a week before the start of the tournament but since then, he has made his mark and has played a crucial role in the team’s progress to the final.

Wesley Sneijder: The attacking midfielder, who has four man of the match awards after scoring five goals in six matches, has been at his best and his form will prove decisive as the Netherlands chase their first WC trophy.

Spain

David Villa: Spain’s goal-scoring machine, who is the joint top-scorer with five goals in six matches, is lethal with his feet and just as he is effective in the air, carrying the attack single-handedly with Fernando Torres completely off-colour.

Andres Iniesta: Gifted with great ball-handling skills, the Barcelona midfielder had a poor run at his club with a series of niggling injuries but has, since the start of this tournament, proved his worth by setting up victory more than once.

Netherlands’ record in previous tournaments 

1930  Did not enter
1934  First round
1938  First round
1950  Did not enter
1954  Did not enter
1958  Did not qualify
1962  Did not qualify 
1966  Did not qualify
1970  Did not qualify
1974  Runners-up
1978  Runners-up
1982  Did not qualify 
1986  Did not qualify
1990  Second round
1994  Quarter-finals
1998  Fourth
2002  Did not qualify  
2006  Second round 

Spain's record  in previous tournaments 

1930  Did not qualify
1934  Quarter-finals
1938  Did not enter
1950  Fourth
1954  Did not qualify
1958  Did not qualify
1962  Group stage
1966  Group stage
1970  Did not qualify
1974  Did not qualify
1978 First group  stage
1982  Second group stage
1986  Quarter-finals
1990  Second round
1994  Quarter-finals
1998  Group stage
2002  Quarter-finals 
2006  Second round 

 

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