Spain-Netherlands: First-time winner coming

The first World Cup in Africa appropriately presents something

new: Spain or the Netherlands as a first-time champion.

The Spaniards and Dutch will meet Sunday at Soccer City after

winning tight semifinals. It’s the first final for the Spaniards,

who broke a 44-year major championships drought when they won the

European crown two years ago.

For the Dutch, its a third trip to the title game, having lost

in 1974 and ’78. The nations never have met in a World Cup and have

split nine games 4-4 with one draw.

Spain is a 1-2 favorite to win the final, according to

BetUS.

Both teams rolled into this tournament with long streaks of

success, and the Netherlands’ string remains intact: 25 matches

without a loss and 10 straight victories, including all six in

South Africa, the only team to manage that.

“We know we can play football,” captain Giovanni van

Bronckhorst said. “To be mentally strong is now most

important.”

Mentally fragile has been the World Cup description for both

nations. The Dutch in particular regularly have wasted their deep

pool of soccer talent by going out early in big events since the

loss to Argentina in the 1978 final. They won the ’88 European

Championship and fell to Brazil in the World Cup semifinals 10

years later.

Other than that, it’s pretty much been rotten Oranje.

Spain didn’t even do as well at the Netherlands, consistently

flopping in the biggest moments. But the so-called golden

generation for La Roja has changed the team’s direction, and it

showed in particular Wednesday night against Germany.

No team was more dominant in this World Cup than the Germans,

yet they played conservatively, even a bit timidly when faced with

David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and the rest of the

Spaniards. So Spain controlled the match, finally breaking through

on Carles Puyol’s header goal – you can bet Germany wasn’t prepared

for a defender to provide the only offense.

“The group deserves this but we want more,” said Spain striker

David Villa, who is tied with Netherlands playmaker Wesley Sneijder

for the tournament scoring lead at five goals each. “We are happy

to be in the final, that was our objective, but now we want to be

champions.”

To be champions, the Spaniards will need to shut down the Dutch

the way they did the Germans, who lead the tournament with 13

goals. Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt and the

rest of the Oranje have 12 goals and can crush opponents when given

room to create.

But so can the Spanish, the best passing team in the world; yes,

even better than Brazil.

Don’t look for counterattacks Sunday. The Dutch will build their

probing offense from goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg on out,

unafraid to let their somewhat inexperienced keeper begin the

passing sequences they favor.

Spain will get the ball to the feet of Iniesta or Xavi, then try

to spring Villa or someone else down the wings or in the middle.

Long passes will be rare. Shots might be, too.

Goals? Whichever team calms its nerves best should get enough of

them to finally carry off the prize.