Spain vs The Netherlands: No dramas, just pure soccer

In Sunday's match of Spain vs The Netherlands, most Europeans are excited about watching two great teams whose styles and history go way back, but who have never won.

David Gray/Reuters
Spain's Carles Puyol (c.) celebrates with teammates after scoring the first goal during their 2010 World Cup semi-final soccer match against Germany on July 7.

Spain and The Netherlands have exciting and storied soccer teams that make the highlight reels. But neither has made it to the World Cup victory circle. The two teams meet Sunday after a memorable African-hosted Cup in which European teams first appeared ready to fold in the face of South American soccer style.

Now Spain or the Netherlands, both solid and talented teams, even if known as underachievers -- will be the first Europeans to win a World Cup held outside Europe. Spain is considered to have the finesse; the Dutch have toughness.

To be sure, “there’s no big European identity when it comes to soccer, everyone roots for their national team,” says a French soccer blogger Thomas Fourquet. “If anything, you have a favorite team, and then a second favorite, which is often Brazil or Argentina.”

Sunday marks the first Spanish visit to the finals -- and also clocks the first time either team will ever win the Cup.

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Some wags here say the last time the Spanish and Dutch faced off so squarely was the Dutch war of independence against Spain that ended in 1640 – and essentially ended the Counter-reformation. Yet the match will actually lack the somewhat nasty overtones expected had Germany advanced to take on the Dutch.

The way most Europeans see it, Sunday will be pure soccer at Soccer City in Johannesburg, with no distorting overtones – just two great teams whose styles and history go way back, but who have never won.

Spain only two years ago ended a 44-year trek through a victory-less soccer desert, capturing the Euro 2008 title – and is now considered the master artisan of the passing game. The Dutch are associated with some of the most innovative soccer ever in the 1970s and 1990s – their “Total Football” strategy arguably changed the game – but have always been World Cup bridesmaids, not brides. They’ve endured in 2010 through stout defense and outlasting opponents.

There’s even parity at the level of the paranormal. Paul, the “psychic octopus” in Germany, is picking Spain; in Singapore, Mani, a “psychic parakeet,” has picked the Dutch.

IN PICTURES: Paul the Octopus predicts World Cup outcomes

Amsterdam is bracing for a blowout celebration Tuesday; owners of houseboats parked on city canals are already taking precautions against parading hordes that climbed on houseboat roofs after the 1988 Dutch team won the European championship – and sunk several vessels by sheer weight.

Spanish media reported today that huge celebrations are planned in every large city, and every hometown city of Spanish team players – no matter the outcome. Barcelona has put up a big screen. And the atmosphere may get wilder still in Pamplona, where crowds are already gathered for the annual running of the bulls.

The trip to the World Cup finals means that a deep divide between Barcelona and Madrid styles and teams is being bridged – in no small part by the symbolic figure of Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque.

One European soccer legend now getting almost as much attention here as Paul the octopus is Johan Cruyff. Mr. Cruyff deeply incorporates both Dutch and Spanish teams as part of his makeup. As a Dutch team player in the '70s, he was synonymous with “Total Football,” in which players broke out of their positions and attacked mercilessly (think the advent of West Coast offense in basketball). But Cruyff’s coaching and influence have since been wrapped up in Barcelona, whose team makes up much of the Spanish team in South Africa.

After Spain beat Germany this week, Cruyff predicted Spain would win the final on Sunday, based on its passing brilliance that eats time and wears out opponents, a style he champions.

"Spain is now the great favourite," Cruyff wrote in El Periodico de Catalunya on Thursday. "Del Bosque's team has grown in strength and finds itself in the final at the top of its game…. Who am I supporting? I am Dutch, but I support the football that Spain is playing."

One perception here is that Spain has a talented, ego-filled dream team of stars, while the Netherlands relies more on team cohesion. Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, however, argues that when Spanish players “lose the ball, they immediately join in, their big stars, too.... It is something we also do well."


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