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Homage to Catalonia

There’s no doubt that Germany looked magisterial against Argentina. Late last year, I watched a team pummel Diego Maradona’s team in similar fashion. They ran all over them with astonishing ease, making them look like a third division team on the brink of the brink of relegation. This was a particularly low moment for Maradona, the winter when his team was more messy than Messi. Still, the side that beat them clearly possessed players of superior quality. That was last December when the albiceleste ventured into Barcelona’s Nou Camp. They left the stadium that day defeated 4-2. The team that thrashed Maradona’s men didn’t qualify for the World Cup. In fact, it can’t. FIFA won’t let it. But anyone who has paid attention to this tournament knows its best players well.

The side was the Catalan National team, which assembles irregularly for friendlies—and several of its best players (Xavi, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta) constitute the central column of the Spanish squad. Needless to say, these are all Barcelona men. They also happen to be the reason that Spain has such a fine shot at the Jules Rimet.

Now, there’s not much to extrapolate from Catalonia’s performance that day. Only perhaps that they could go deep into a World Cup tournament if FIFA ever decided to accord the Catalan the same status as the English—a nation within a nation that has its own distinct football identity. But it also points towards one reason for excitement about a Spanish final.

Everyone knows that a Germany-Holland would make for a delicious match, freighted with history. Simon Kuper has persuasively argued that the globule of saliva that Frank Rijkaard hurled in the direction of Rudi Voller was instrumental in Holland’s overcoming the scars of German occupation.

And any match that has World War II as the subtext is entertaining.

A Spain-Holland final would have its own pleasures and rich subtext. Catalonia is coached by that great revolutionary Johan Cruyff. And if Spain is great because of the Catalan, the Catalan are great because of the Dutch. Barca’s intricate one-touch passing and its innate mastery of geometry trace back to Cruyff’s coach, Rinus Michels, who spent two spells at the club in the seventies, and then extend through Cruyff’s time at the club, both as a player and as coach. Since Cruyff, the Dutch ethos of Barca has been tended by Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard.

Of course, Total Football is a bit of a chimera. It only truly existed for a brief moment in time, then its best lessons were globalized and the Dutch abandoned its gaudy excesses. Still, there are teams that are truer to the spirit of Cryuff than others. And, in a bizarre inversion, the Dutch seem, among the remaining teams, the furthest from it. So, we could have a final where the team in red is truly the more orange side—where the Dutch would be playing against their true selves.