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World Cup 2010: Final to be thrilling contrast

Spain's beautiful game will by tested by Netherlands' passionate play.

Soccer World Cup 2010

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.

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

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.