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World Cup 2010: Final to be thrilling contrast

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

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.