Small group of World Cup champs ready to open door
The World Cup champions are an illustrious and exclusive bunch.
Only seven countries belong, and just twice in the last 40 years
have they welcomed anyone new.
Well, start making way. On Sunday, there’s going to be another
name on that list.
Spain and the Netherlands are each seeking their first title in
the World Cup final at Soccer City. The Dutch have had two cracks
at it already, earning that dreaded “best team never to have won
the World Cup” title after coming up short in 1974 and again four
years later. Spain has had its own issues, underachieving at major
tournaments for 44 long years before winning the European title two
“The group deserves this, but we want more,” sublime Spanish
striker David Villa said. “We are happy to be in the final, that
was our objective. But now we want to be champions.”
For all the hype over the South Americans and hope about the
teams from Africa, the final will be a Europeans-only party for a
second straight World Cup. And few should really be surprised that
it’s come down to Spain and the Netherlands.
Spain is, of course, the reigning European champion, the game’s
second-biggest title after the World Cup. It’s lost just two
matches since November 2006, and its playing style bears a striking
resemblance to Barcelona, which has run roughshod on just about
everyone the last few years.
When it’s on, Spain is awe-inspiring. Its backline of Carles
Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila is more like a
wall – and just try getting anything by goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Any team would be thrilled to have any one of Villa, Xabi Alonso,
Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres or Cesc Fabregas, let alone
all of them.
Opponents know Spain’s game is based on possession and flow, and
good luck trying to disrupt that. When someone does, the Spanish
are like a swarm of bees until they get it back. Germany seemed to
be the class of the World Cup after routing England and Argentina
by a combined 8-1 in the knockout rounds. But the Germans had only
a handful of chances in Wednesday night’s semifinal loss, and
looked out of sync all night.
“I am sure the Spanish can win any game,” Germany coach
Joachim Loew said, “because they are dominant and it’s hard to
contain their attack.”
The Dutch aren’t exactly slouches, though. They won all eight of
their qualifying matches, and are perfect in South Africa, too. Not
since Pele’s brilliant Brazil squad in 1970 has a squad had a
chance at winning the World Cup with an unblemished record.
“We play well,” Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk said.
“Spain plays well, but they are more attractive and this is where
we want to get, too.”
Neither has looked particularly flashy here. At times, in fact,
both Spain and the Netherlands have been downright tough to watch.
One of Spain’s two losses came in the group-stage opener to
Switzerland – Switzerland! – and it needed a late Villa goal to get
past Paraguay in the quarterfinals after both teams missed penalty
kicks. It has seven goals in its six games, and Villa has been
responsible for all but two of them.
The Netherlands has squandered all kinds of chances in front of
its net, often winning by just a goal. It beat Uruguay 3-2 in the
semifinals, but the game was in doubt far longer than it should
have been. Perhaps the best thing you can say about the Dutch is
they’ve had one heck of a party in South Africa. No matter where
they’ve played, an Oranje Crush of fans has followed.
“We have been messy,” Van Marwijk said. “We’ve had spells
with brilliant attacks, yet we forgot to score. That though, can
change within a match.”
And all that really matters is, whenever they’ve needed them,
Spain and the Netherlands have found ways to score the big
After falling behind to Brazil in the quarterfinals, little
Wesley Sneijder came up big with two goals to shock the five-time
World Cup champions. In the 3-2 win over Uruguay in the semifinals,
Sneijder and Arjen Robben broke through a stifling defense to score
three minutes apart.
With Spain locked up tight with Paraguay in the quarters, Villa
scored in the 83rd minute, banking in a goal off not one, but both
posts. And against Germany, Puyol scored in the 73rd minute on a
thunderous header that sent his shaggy locks flying.
“We’ve shown that in the big moments we can grow even more,”
Villa said. “We should have scored more goals, but one from Puyol
has put us in the final.”
A final that could showcase everything that makes the World Cup
so magical. And a final with only one certainty: the club of world
champions is about to grow.