World Cup 2010: Final to be thrilling contrast

BOSTON — The World Cup 2010 semifinals displayed contrasting styles of soccer and produced two worthy finalists in Spain and the Netherlands who appear poised to produce an exhilarating climax to the tournament on Sunday.

The success of Spain and the Netherlands in reaching the finals is not without irony.

After a disappointing 2008-09 campaign for Real Madrid, its hurt compounded when those Catalan outliers at Barcelona won all the biggest titles in Spain and Europe, the past season was supposed to erase the bitter memories.

With the 2010 Champions League final set to be held in Real Madrid’s home stadium, the Spanish giant spent almost $200 million to buy two former World Player of the Year winners — Cristiano Ronaldo (2008) and Kaka (2007) — to help assure that Madrid was not just hosting, but also playing in that game.

To rebuild its offense around the pair of superstars, Real Madrid jettisoned a Dutch pair, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, that had failed to carry the team to the Promised Land.

But in a painful twist, after Real Madrid had been knocked out of the European competition, both castoffs returned to Madrid for that final — Robben steaming down the right wing for Bayern Munich and Sneijder, the mainstay in the middle for the eventual champion Inter Milan.

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On Sunday, South Africa 2010 will reach a no-quarrel climax in which — despite the fuss over the ball, the officiating, the vuvuzelas and anything else — the two best teams, Spain and Netherlands, will play for the world’s most coveted crown. And those same two flying Dutchmen will be poised to deliver another knockout blow — an even more crushing one — to the entire Spanish nation. (The fractious regional divides in Spain used to temper support for the national team, but no longer. While Madrid men are coach and captain, Barcelona players dominate the starting lineup.)

Sunday’s only certainty is that a new team — only the 8th — will be added to the list of countries that have been World Cup champion. The Netherlands and Spain are regarded as the two most accomplished soccer nations never to have won the quadrennial tournament.

The Dutch reigned over the soccer world in the ’70s and reached the World Cup finals in both ’74 and ’78, only to stumble — first to West Germany 2-1 and then to Argentina 3-1.

Spain, for all its soccer prominence, has never finished higher than 4th in the World Cup—and had never won a major tournament until it captured the 2008 Euro championship.

Spain is now the rightful home to "the beautiful game" — the stylish approach in which passing is paramount and finesse trumps brute force — that Brazil made famous and, of late, has relinquished.
(Spain's success should assure that Brazil, which will host World Cup 2014, reconsiders its decision to abandon that style.)

On Thursday against Germany, Spain produced its third successive, carbon-copy victory by a 1-0 score. With star striker Fernando Torres benched after five ineffective games, Spain appeared even more dominant and thoroughly controlled the ball with its short passing game. But just as in its two previous wins over Portugal and Paraguay, it took more than a half before Spain could finally penetrate the defense for the decisive score.

Germany, by far the most swashbuckling team in the tournament before this game, suddenly looked tentative, even timid. Clearly the team missed the creative juices provided by its 20-year-old hotshot, Thomas Muller, who was sidelined after an abysmal yellow-card decision in the quarterfinal win over Argentina.

Still, unlike Paraguay, which pressured the ball relentlessly, Germany simply gave Spain lots of space and seemed content with the very occasional counterattack. It never utilized its size advantage by challenging the Spanish players physically. Indeed the game bordered on the genteel; few fouls were called and the ref didn’t dish out a single colored card.

In the end it was Carles Puyol, at 5’10” the smallest, but also the grittiest of the Spanish defenders, who propelled himself into the pack and rammed a header past the German keeper for the winning goal. Though the Germans finally pressed and played long ball over the final 20 minutes, the team never really looked capable of netting the tying goal; Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas was only required to make two saves — only one slightly challenging — over the course of the game.

The Dutch, who have not lost a game in almost two years now, had a far more physical and far chippier encounter in its semi-final against Uruguay. And while the Netherlands appeared to be cruising to a much easier victory than Spain’s, Uruguay proved remarkably resilient, scoring one goal in the late minutes and continually threatening before it finally succumbed 3-2. Uruguay did not have much fan support after its tarnished victory over Ghana in the quarters, but at game’s end its performance had certainly had earned the respect of all soccer fans. And Uruguay’s Diego Forlan proved to be the standout offensive giant that Ronaldo and Rooney and Torres were ballyhooed as, but failed to be in South Africa.

It was, naturally, Sneijder who broke the 1-1 tie with a nifty roller out of the keeper’s reach. (In keeping with the tournament’s sloppy officiating, the goal probably should have been disallowed on an offside call.) And then it was Robben who netted the clincher on a nifty header that saw him retreating away from the goal before he redirected the ball back past the goalkeeper. Known for his gifted left foot rather than his heading prowess, Robben celebrated by racing to the sidelines and rubbing his bald palate as if it was the magic lamp and the genie was already out.

The Dutch, of course, travel with a rabid following and will have plenty of support in Johannesburg on Sunday. But it is unlikely that many of the neutrals that bolstered the orange wave against Uruguay will remain in their camp. It does not have much to do with the dubious Dutch legacy as the first white settlers of South Africa. Soccer fever has pretty much kept political sentiments in temporary abeyance.

Rather it is a matter of style. Spain’s is not just beautiful, but exhilarating, while the Dutch penchant for diving and flopping has been noted with much distaste. It is one thing to see Robben, who has a relatively slight frame, collapse in agony each time somebody breathes on him. It is another matter entirely to watch the husky Mark van Bommel, a take-no-prisoners menace in the midfield, employ the same feigning tactics.

Still, the Netherlands plays a passionate game. And if it’s not quite the frenzied, all-out attacking style that made Dutch football famous four decades ago — they called it “total football”— the Dutch always seem willing to go for goal. It is hard to imagine that — even playing for the highest stakes — the Netherlands will, as Germany surprisingly did, suddenly discover its inner caution.

Four years ago, two defensive-minded teams, Italy and France, produced a miserable slog of a final, made even less palatable by an ugly head-butting episode. This game, with the freewheeling Dutch tandem of Sneijder and Robben pitted against the legacy of “joga bonito” (as translated into Spanish), looms as a decided and delightful counterpoint — and thus, regardless of the outcome, a victory for the game and its fans.