Friday, July 9, 2010 6:56 PM
By Dave Johnson
For the most part, the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup Finals has been filled with open and attacking play. It is fitting then that the Netherlands and Spain, with their positive attitudes and approaches, will compete on Sunday for the tournament's biggest prize.
Sunday's is a match-up between two great soccer playing nations that have, somewhat inexplicably, never won a World Cup. The Netherlands, pioneers of Total Football, will be making their third appearance in a World Cup Final, while Spain, the defending European Champions, are now in unchartered territory.
The truth is, the Dutch really should have won a World Cup by now. With Johan Cruyff as the center piece of Total Football, where any outfield player can take over the role of another player, the Netherlands reached the World Cup's final hurdle in both 1974 and 1978.
Rinus Michels, the architect of Total Football, coached the national team in the 1970's and returned to lead another bright generation of Dutch players a decade later. With players Marco Van Basten and Ruud Guillit leading the way, the Netherlands won the European Championships in 1988.
The Euro success led to great hope that the Netherlands would finally break through at the 1990 World Cup, but Le Oranje failed to overcome what is largely remembered as a very negative World Cup. In many ways, that Dutch team just didn't belong in an era when crunching tackles from behind were not punished and back-passes to the goalkeeper were allowed and in vogue.
The current Dutch team does not play the Total Football of the nations romantic soccer past. After a slow start to the tournament in a 2-0 win over Denmark, Bert van Marwijk's side has gradually continued to build. Even though the Netherlands has made it all the way to the final game, Comcast SportsNet D.C. United analyst Thomas Rongen believes they still have more to give.
Despite all that has changed since the era of "Total Football", The Netherlands still plays with a commitment to attack. With Dirk Koyt, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben going forward and Wesley Sneijder in support, the creative flair exists. Behind the frontline, this Dutch team defends well with a back four and two defensive midfielders.
Against Spain, the Netherlands will be well served to be disciplined. Spanish teams have always possessed the skill and quality to create a football fiesta, but the success was limited, albeit tremendous, to the club level.
On the national team level, Spain was always applauded for its style and elegance on the field, but frustrated by a lack of trophies to show for their efforts. That changed when this current team broke through and won the European Championship two years ago.
Spain wants to take advantage of what really is a golden generation. From Iker Casillas in goal to David Villa and Fernando Torres up top, the quality in the Spanish starting 11 is breathtaking. With a midfield led by Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Andres Niesta, Spain has a tendency to dominate possession.
From his right back position, Sergio Ramos has also been very active in the attack. In fact, this Spanish team does a wonderful job of getting everyone involved going forward while still being able to recover and defend.
The great mystery for Spain is why their dominance in possession and ability to create scoring chances has not translated into more goals. It is a team, that for all its ability, has been living on a knifes edge in this tournament because they simply haven't put teams away.
The semi-final against Germany also showed that Spain must not be given too much respect and time on the ball. Spain, for all its frustration at missed opportunities, remained patient. Germany seemed to abandon its own style and paid the price in a 1-0 loss.
The Netherlands - Spain matchup has all the ingredients for a memorable final game. It is in the psyche of both countries to be positive in their soccer, though it's the Dutch who will go into the game as the underdog. Even in the eyes of the greatest Dutch player of them all, Le Oranje have a steep mountain to climb.
"Germany, which put on a display against Argentina, played football which would have been enough to beat any team," Cruyff, who made his club fame playing and managing at Barcelona, wrote in a Spanish newspaper on Thursday. "But not Spain. If Spain goes for you, it kills you."