There’s plenty of reason to be hopeful about this final. Not least because it’s probably the best final we could have hoped for. I’d thought Brazil-Spain was my ideal game, but Brazil was disappointing, and the Netherlands deservedly dumped it out of the tournament.
So we get an all-European final. Well, it would have been close to that anyway, with most of Brazil’s team playing, or having played, with European clubs. That was the Euro-Brazil that Dunga wanted, and it failed. Here’s hoping that we do not see its like again -- surely the Brazilian fans in 2014, with their own team playing on home soil, will demand a return to the true Brazilian values.
Anyway, we’re not short of true soccer values in today’s game. Thanks largely to Spain. How ironic that Dunga, in wanting to Europeanize Brazilian soccer, should choose the physical path, just at the time when Spain was dominating the European game with a game based wondrously on skill.
And based on the skilled game as played at Barcelona. Which adds a further touch of spice to today’s final, for the Barcelona style -- familiar now to just about everyone with its rapid passing and intelligent player movement -- owes a great deal to a Dutchman -- the greatest of the soccer Dutchmen, Johan Cruyff.
You might even mistake the Spanish national team for FC Barcelona, because it harbors no fewer than seven Barcelona players in its usual starting lineup. The evident advantages of such a set-up hardly need stressing -- the innate familiarity of the players with each other’s moves and idiosyncrasies. And above all, the fact that they bring with them the whole cloth that is the Barcelona style.
Trying to create from scratch a Spanish team -- or any team, for that matter -- with a style as sophisticated and intricate as Barcelona’s would hardly be possible. Certainly not with a national team, whose get-togethers are far too infrequent to develop the almost instinctive understandings necessary.
So Coach Vicente del Bosque has been handed a gift -- or better, he has recognized a gift was there, and he has welcomed it gladly. Maybe that’s not so easy in a country that often seems to be divided between Madrid and Barcelona; to allow Barcelona to so thoroughly dominate the team (it has three Real Madrid players) might, if we believe the oft-cited stories of rivalry and enmity, even hatred, be asking for trouble.
But Spain has been irresistible, it hardly ever loses, and no one is going to be disappointed with its style of play. So there has been no occasion for friction. Spain is in the final, yet it has hardly looked like an irresistible team. Its last three games have been meager 1-0 wins -- and had the referee in the Paraguay game been in less lenient mood, Spain could have been in real trouble.
But those three 1-0 wins came against teams that were clearly scared of Spain, teams that went into a defensive shell from the first whistle. Against such tactics, Spain has found it difficult to score; the relentless inter-passing has looked repetitive and almost futile.
But Spain has persisted, has never lost faith in its style, and has won through. Without, in any one of its games, looking quite like the smooth-flowing, goal-scoring Barcelona.
All of which might cause some furrowed brows in the Dutch camp. Those teams playing defense have really caused problems for Spain -- indeed, Switzerland beat them -- but the temptation to play that way will not, I think, be entertained by the Dutch.
Dutch teams have never been defensive -- certainly not in the modern era -- which begins with that man again, Johan Cruyff. So this would appear to be a chance for the Spanish to unfold their real game.
Possibly. But the Dutch have their own game to counter that -- they have a much more physical, ball-winning midfield than Spain. If that is operating well, the ball goes directly and menacingly up to Robin van Persie or Arjen Robben -- Dirk Kuyt and the brilliant Wesley Sneijder are quick to join in -- and the Dutch have scored 12 goals so far, two per game. The shackled Spanish have managed only seven, and five of those have come from the remarkable David Villa.
If the Dutch can contain Villa, if they can disrupt the smooth passing rhythm of the Spanish midfield ... those are two pretty big "ifs," never mind the problems of piercing a Spanish defense that has so far conceded only two goals in six games. But it does look as though the battle of styles in the midfield will be decisive. In essence, Spanish possession vs Dutch tackling.
Which means that the Dutch are going to have to take risks while doing their ball winning, which in turn means they will be hoping for a let-‘em-play performance from referee Howard Webb.
Let-‘em-play means let-‘em-foul. It cannot mean anything else. Not massive fouls, of course, but the small and intermediate fouls that can prevent an opposing team from playing coherent soccer. The Dutch can, and do, play that game. It remains to be seen what role Webb will play. A permissive performance from him will assuredly help the Dutch -- in particular their combative midfielder Mark van Bommel. Not that there aren’t others on the Dutch team capable of rugged tackling -- Nigel de Jong and substitute Khalid Boulahrouz spring immediately to mind -- but van Bommel is in a class of his own, a certified ruffian who so far in this tournament has quite inexplicably managed to escape receiving even one yellow card.
Spain knows quite well that Webb is capable of turning a blind eye to brutality -- he did so, quite appallingly, during a Barcelona-Bayern Munich Champions League game a couple of years back, allowing the chief offender to escape uncarded. That chief offender was van Bommel
Assuming that Webb keeps van Bommel under control this time -- and Webb has had a pretty good tournament so far -- then I feel that the superior soccer skills of the Spaniards will take over in midfield and will win this game.
Even so, there’s another parade of “ifs” to follow that assertion -- the chief one being: if Spain can put the ball in the net. This does not look like another 1-0 game. The Dutch have shown that they have two remarkable goalscorers in top form, Sneijder and Robben. Among the Spanish strikers, only David Villa is finding the net. But there is Fernando Torres, either starting or from the bench, a superb player not quite in sync, but, you have to feel, about to catch fire at any moment.
I expected the Germans to attack the Spanish from the start. They did not, they played cautiously, even timidly. They looked to be afraid of Spain -- and they lost. I do not expect the Dutch to make the same mistake of playing with defensive caution. But I do expect them to lose.