On this potentially most glorious of days for Dutch soccer, there is a bitter irony to the World Cup final Sunday.
The Netherlands has reached the cusp of its first-ever World Cup title not by playing the flexible and mesmerizing brand of soccer that it largely invented in the 1970s, but rather by making the same concession that soccer teams the world over have repeatedly made: Winning soccer is more important than beautiful soccer.
Yet it is on this day in particular that that sacrifice will appear particularly galling.
STORY: Three reasons why the Netherlands will beat Spain
In Spain, the Netherlands will face the image of its 1970s self – a team for whom a soccer pitch is as much canvas as playing surface and whose tactical inventions have begun to reshape the soccer world.
Indeed, for the Dutch, the roles in this World Cup final will be reversed from what they were in 1974 and 1978 – the only other times the Dutch made it to a World Cup final.
Today, as with the Dutch sides of 1974 and 1978, Spain is trying to win the World Cup final that its soccer revolution would seem to merit. And today, as with the Netherlands’ opponents in the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals, the Dutch are trying to play spoiler.
The parallels are intriguing.
In the Netherlands, the word Totaalvoetbal – total football – is a national heirloom. It was, to 1970s soccer, nothing short of a revelation and it has remained an essential element of the Dutch soccer DNA ever since.
Put simply, it was a system in which every player could play every position. Its genius lay in its ability to bewilder opposing defenses.
As with American football, pre-total-football soccer was largely defined by players being assigned to specific tasks. For instance, if you know that a wide receiver is fast and his job is to run down the field to catch passes, you can assign a defender to negate those specific skills. But what if an offensive lineman could run routes with the skill of a receiver? And pass the ball? And block like a lineman?
Who covers that player?
In total football, each player became a hybrid capable of doing everything, and the defenses of the 1970s had few answers.
Yet that time passed, with the Dutch failing to win in 1974 and 1978, and the rest of the world slowly devising countermeasures.
What is noteworthy about the Dutch team set to take the field Sunday, however, is how drastically it has abandoned total football. The Dutch essentially have six players – four defenders and two defensive midfielders – who are chained to their position on the field, rarely leaving their assigned place in the team’s formation.
Even offensively, the Dutch distill down to two wingers who sometimes switch sides, a central attacking midfielder, and a forward – relatively static by world standards.
While Spain does not approach the Dutch total football of the 1970s, they are a much closer facsimile of it. It is no coincidence that the Dutch player around whom total football evolved, Johan Cruyff, later went on to coach Barcelona, and that Barcelona players make up the backbone of this Spanish team.
Spain’s attacking five resemble a carousel, with none taking up any fixed position but constantly cycling in a never-ceasing kaleidoscope of passing triangles.
It is this, more than anything else, that is Spain’s gift to world soccer – its refinement to total football. It has been called Tiki-Taka – a nonsensical term that somehow perfectly encapsulates Spain’s offensive revolution.
Put simply, Tiki-Taka is soccer’s version of “keep away.” It says: If the opponent can’t get the ball, it can’t score.
Tiki-Taka is the clockwork rhythm of Spain’s short passing. Tiki-Taka is the drip-drip of torture of a thousand interlinked passes. Tiki-Taka is the sound of a defense run ragged, tongues wagging from chasing the ball like a frustrated Labrador retriever.
Just as total football redefined the notion of “position” in soccer, Tiki-Taka has redefined the importance of possession. Most teams in the World Cup have abandoned the two-forward system in order to put another man in midfield and keep hold of the ball on offense.
Admittedly, Spain’s tiki-taka has hardly devastated the opposition in South Africa. Spain enters the final having scored only seven goals in six games – the lowest total in history for a World Cup finalist.
Yet it is also a testament to Spain’s dominance. No team is willing to trade punches with Spain. Instead, they set up a bunker of humanity around their goal. Even the Germans, the tournament’s leading scorers, ventured out of their defensive end only with extreme caution in the semifinal.
This, it seems, must be the Netherlands’ lot, as well. They stand in the way of a soccer revolution meeting its full fruition.
With a win today, the Netherlands would make Spain the Netherlands of this generation.