The shadow of Johan Cruyff will loom large over the 19th FIFA World Cup™ Final on Sunday. The 11 men chosen to represent the Netherlands will take to the pitch as heirs of the team synonymous with ‘Total Football’, aiming to achieve what Cruyff and Co never quite managed. On the opposing side, seven of Spain’s probable line-up play their domestic football with Catalan giants Barcelona, the club where the legendary Dutchman cemented his reputation as player and coach.
Not since 1978, when Argentina faced the Netherlands, have two nations competed for a maiden world title. The Oranje are yet to put a foot wrong in their quest, winning all eight of their qualifying matches and boasting an impressive record of six victories out of six in South Africa. A successful outcome in the third Final of their history would see them join the mighty 1970 Brazil side as the only other team to have won all of their games on the way to claiming the world title.
As reigning European champions, La Roja will look to their golden generation of superstars to ensure that the country’s name is finally engraved on the coveted trophy. Germany remain the only team to have lifted the FIFA World Cup two years after winning the UEFA European Championship, but a Spanish victory would expand this elite club’s membership to two.
The Germans will be relying on a talented generation of their own against Uruguay, the surprise team of South Africa 2010. La Celeste may have been reliving past glories over the last four weeks, but they can also now look to the future with confidence. Whichever team emerges triumphant will certainly deserve to be considered as the tournament’s third best side.
Uruguay-Germany, Saturday 10 July, Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth, 20.30 (local time)
Netherlands-Spain, Sunday 11 July, Johannesburg (Soccer City), 20.30 (local time)
The big game
Although each has added a pragmatic edge to their approach at South Africa 2010, both these sides come from a tradition of attacking, free-flowing football that could well produce a classic Final. Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben would certainly not look out of place in the Dutch ‘Clockwork Orange’ side of the 1970s. Yet it could be argued that they have something even more valuable to offer, namely that innate ability to create something out of nothing.
The opposing camp is not without its talents either, of course. The fulcrum of the Spanish team is Xavi, who regularly completes an incredible 100 passes per match, offering a masterclass in consistency and accuracy. When pondering at whose feet he should place the ball, he is usually spoiled for choice, with Andres Iniesta, Pedro and David Villa making darting and penetrating runs left, right and centre.
Will La Roja’s impenetrable defence prove one hurdle too far for the Dutch? Or will the Netherlands midfield make the difference, and Mark van Bommel’s determination and ball-winning skills allow the team's mark on the Final? Both teams should be at full strength and, if their respective stars are able to put the high stakes to the back of their minds and truly express themselves, spectators the world over could be in for a veritable exhibition of football.
Thomas Muller (GER) v Luis Suarez (URU)
At the semi-final stage, both Muller and Suarez were forced to sit out what would have been the biggest match of their careers through suspension. What is certain is that their teams missed them. With a combined age of just 43, both forwards represent the future of their respective national sides. In a match for third place that promises plenty of action, their return to the starting XI should have a significant effect. For Uruguay, Diego Forlan is likely to drop back behind Suarez, giving himself more opportunities to go for goal and move the ball around. At the other end of the pitch, Miroslav Klose will attempt to rekindle his productive partnership with Muller, as he aims to join and perhaps even overtake Ronaldo as the all-time leading goalscorer at the FIFA World Cup.
What they said
“I love attractive football, but I also love to win. I’ve been coaching this team for two years, and I’ve said many times to my players that our mission was clear, and that the best way to accomplish it was to believe in ourselves,” Bert van Marwijk, Netherlands coach.
Figuring it all out: The FIFA World Cup will shortly be claimed by an eighth different country – either Spain or the Netherlands – come late Sunday night, after previous victories by Uruguay, Italy, Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina and France. In addition, Europe is already assured of leapfrogging South America in the number of wins, giving the Old Continent a 10-9 lead. This will also be the first time a European team has secured the trophy beyond their continental borders, a challenge at which Brazil have excelled over the years, winning in Europe (Sweden 1958), North America (United States 1994) and Asia (Korea/Japan 2002).
Conversely, the five-time world champions lost ‘their’ FIFA World Cup in 1950 and have only won once on South American soil, in Chile in 1962. Sunday will see the eighth Final between European cousins (after Italy-Czechoslovakia in 1934, Italy-Hungary in 1938, West Germany-Hungary in 1954, England-West Germany in 1966, West Germany-Netherlands in 1974, Italy-West Germany in 1982 and Italy-France in 2006), while South American nations have only come together twice at this stage (Uruguay-Argentina in 1930 and Brazil-Uruguay in 1950). Finally, although three South American sides have played in 13 Finals – seven for Brazil, four for Argentina and two for Uruguay – no fewer than nine European teams have participated in the deciding game(Germany, on seven occasions; Italy, six; Netherlands, three; France, two; Hungary, two; Czechoslovakia, two; Sweden, one; England, one; and Spain, one)
313 long minutes: By keeping a clean sheet in their 1-0 defeat of Germany in the semi-final, Spain broke their own defensive record at FIFA World Cups. Vicente del Bosque’s men have now gone 313 minutes without conceding a goal, since Chilean Rodrigo Millar found the net against them in the 47th minute of their group encounter, a match won 2-1 by Spain. Since the knockout stage began, the European champions have emerged victorious by a 1-0 scoreline three times, against Portugal, Paraguay and Germany. The former Spanish record of 282 minutes without letting in a goal was set at Brazil 1950.
Sneijder to the four: Having already achieved a memorable treble (UEFA Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia) with Inter Milan this season, Wesley Sneijder is on course to become the first player in football history to complete an astonishing quadruple should the Netherlands lift the trophy on Sunday. As if that was not enough, the Dutch midfielder is also still in contention for the adidas Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards.
For the refereeing record: Englishman George Reader wrote his name into the annals of the sport by refereeing the deciding match of the 1950 FIFA World Cup between Brazil and Uruguay at Maracana Stadium at the ‘tender’ age of 53 years and 236 days. This impressive record is unlikely ever to be broken, given that the age limit for officiating at the highest level has since been set at 45. At the other end of the spectrum, when Spaniard Juan Gardeazabal oversaw France’s 7-3 defeat of Paraguay in Norrkoping at Sweden 1958, he was only 24 years and 193 days old.
No superstitions for the Spanish. By losing 1-0 in their opening group match to Switzerland, Spain have become the fourth previous FIFA World Cup finalist to start off their campaign with a loss. West Germany were shocked 2-1 by Algeria in 1982, Argentina were undone 1-0 by Cameroon in 1990, while Italy lost by the same scoreline to the Republic of Ireland in 1994. Each one of these three teams went on to finish runners-up in the Final, a fate the Spanish will be hoping to avoid.