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So Who’s Going To Win This Thing?

This should be a game for the ages, if for no other reason than because neither Spain nor the Netherlands has ever won the World Cup. We are going to have a new Champion and the constellation of world soccer is going to change. While the Netherlands narrowly missed it twice in the seventies, losing to the hosts (West Germany 1974, Argentina 1978), Spain has never reached the heights of the WC finals before.

If Spain wins, a talented generation will be crowned as the best one in a long while. The team showed the depth of their talent by unflinchingly winning Euro 2008, while their core players perfected their already nearly perfect passing game performing for Barcelona week in, week out.

If the Dutch win, the wrong of not winning it in the seventies will be presumably righted. Except nobody should care--the legacy of the total football the Dutch played forty years ago has been so thoroughly absorbed and transformed into all the recondite tactical formations (4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-3-3 etc.) that the current Dutch team is as far--or as close to it--as the Brazil they beat to reach the finals, or the Spain they need to beat to win it all. No wonder speculations as to whom would Cruyff in the finals support circulate the soccer blogosphere. Dutch though he may be, Cruyff exported his his aesthetic to Barcelona, where it found home at the elite Institute for Incessant Passing. Dr. Xavi, for example, has been playing for various Barcelona teams for the past 19 years. Xavi has a greater claim to being Cruyff's descendent than van Bommel, whose thugishness would not have had a place in the seventies Dutch team, not for reasons of morality, but because it was not really necessary--the seventies Dutch team were all about possession and conquering space. (Van Bommel lost his dubious place in Barcelona, once van Gaal's reign there ended.) Indeed, one can argue that the current Dutch team has reached the 2010 finals because they managed to shed the burden of the expectations set up by Cruyff's generation. The Dutch team of the seventies lost in the finals to two pragmatic teams, and none of the current players was even born.

On Sunday, the Dutch will have to impede and disrupt the crushingly steady rhythm of Spanish passing. Expect van Bommel and De Jong (who should be back from yellow-card suspension) to go hard at Xavi, Iniesta and the rest of the Spanish midfield. The Oranje must have seen that simply chasing the Spaniards did not work for Germany--no matter how many Germans were around Xavi, there was always a teammate of his open for an exit pass. Van Bommel's standard approach in similar situations is to foul mercilessly (see the game against Brazil). Given that there has been much talk about his evading punishment, and that the finals will be refereed by the card-happy Howard Webb, van Bommel will have to tread a fine line. I would not be surprised if he gets a yellow early, which would force him to be careful, which will obviously help the Spaniards.

Iniesta will be a key player for Spain. In the game against Germany, he spent much time coming inside from the left (or, occasionally, right, as he switched sides with Pedro), quickly converting to a more central midfielder and allowing the Spaniards to have an extra man for a pass in the midfield. In the finals, Iniesta might spend more time on the right, so as to force Sneijder (the crucial player for the Dutch)--who prefers to operate on the left side--into a more defensive role and help Ramos alternately contain and challenge Kuyt. Villa is likely to play more of a central role, reverting to the left when Iniesta comes inside. Much will also depend on Capdevilla's handling of Robben. Although Robben from time to time switches sides with Kuyt, he is far more dangerous on the right, as he likes to turn in and shoot. Capdevilla, who has been reliable but was not challenged by anyone as devious and pacey as Robben, might be a weak spot for Spain and will need some help. Expect a lot of flopping from Robben.

Even though they won every game in this World Cup, the Dutch have not played a great one, largely because van Persie has failed to provide any danger, depriving them of the option to pass forward. Robben has managed few passes to van Persie in the box, while Kuyt generally prefers to pass the ball back. That is why Sneijder has carried the Dutch by scoring 5 goals, making up for van Persie's scoring absence. I don't think that van Persie, fay as he is, stands a chance against Puyol and Pique, which is to say that Sneijder will have to provide some more magic--something he is certainly capable of. It is also possible that the great Dutch game might be the final one, as the great Spanish game was against Germany.

The Spaniards are still favorites, I think, for their experience and patience and the fact that they fully deserve to win and they know it. But the Dutch have not lost a competitive game for a long time and are brimming with confidence.

It should be good.