World Cup

2010 World Cup Final Preview: Spain vs Netherlands

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So ... who wants to talk Hapsburg Dynasty?

Windmills? Phillip II? Polders? Treaty of Westphalia? ... Paul the Octopus?

In short, Sunday's 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain left me scratching my head a little bit, searching for some kind of inspiration.

Naturally, if the Netherlands were playing Germany we could all dig up some World War II references, fire up that chapter of "Band of Brothers" where the Dutch resistance fighters in Eindhoven shave the heads of the women who slept with Nazis and be well on our merry way.

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This judge looked an inmate square in the eyes and did something that left the entire courtroom in tears:

Or we could have dailed up clips of the 1974 final -- the apex of World Cup hair (Paul Breitner, Johan Cruyff, etc. It's likely a deleted scene on the European version of "Woodstock.") -- and remembered the phrase: "Zijn we er toch nog ingetuind" – ("They’ve tricked us again".)

Spain and the Netherlands?

The Eighty Years War doesn't exactly have much juice aside from AP European History buffs.

It's a great game on paper, but for whatever the reason personally I'm not swooning.

Maybe my lack of proper enthusiasm it had to do with the non-stop LeBron James ego-stroking and manufactured hype by ESPN over the last two days, which pushed any World Cup talk to the back burner at the Worldwide Leader. My anger isn't that it overshadowed the Cup, it's the media manipulation and fawning.

Sadly Thursday night I was stuck in the office, forced to watch "The Decision," which was probably the most depressing thing to air on ESPN this summer -- even more than "The Two Escobars."

Not to go on an anti-ESPN, anti-LeBron screed, but it was a grotesque hour of television, ripe for mockery and derision. Fortunately plenty of independent media voices like Jason Whitlock, Will Leitch, Buzz Bissinger, etc. were there on Twitter to make it seem a little less awful, as reality television's toxins finally wove their cancerous ways into professional sports.

Never mind that Miami is the worst professional sports city in America. Or that James(*) conducted himself like a spoiled, entitled athlete with no clue about the reality of America 2010.

(*) Let's use his last name. Never knew he was a Brazilian or Portuguese soccer player. Guess the media can't use that hoary old cliche in 2014 to deride the World Cup.

What made me want to throw the remote into the office flat screen was how ESPN kept praising James for, theoretically, leaving money on the table. Or how he wanted to "win." When "Sportscenter" anchor John Anderson upbraided Cleveland fans for burning a James jersey ... well it made me question why I even bother in the media/journalism game.

Then came an encouraging tweet from long-time reader, contributor -- Ace Cowboy -- containing a link to a video, a video that remains you why we even care about sports in the first place ... and make you pine for the day when the U.S. might make a deep run at the World Cup.

Once again, it's Dirk Kuyt to the rescue. All that was missing was a "Hey You Guys" as he rushed over the advertising boards and toward his jubilant, cheering countrymen. (Where has this atmosphere been all tournament? Oh right, covered up by the vuvuzela.)

If the sight of that goofy, pale Dutchman celebrating with a raucous, orange-clad mass of supporters doesn't bring a smile to you're either a) Spanish b) German or c) an Everton fan.

Kuyt guy works his ass off. Doesn't complain. Plays for both the Dutch and Liverpool wherever the coach wants. He leaves it on the field and doesn't flop.

Hell, he's even married to a woman named Gertrude.(*)

(*) Fascinating, now the English are scrutinizing Fabio Capello via the Dutch's lax attitude toward WAGs.

Now just try to compare those emotions from Cape Town on Tuesday in the wake of the Netherlands 3-2 win over Uruguay in the World Cup semifinals to the canned, overwrought, calculated infomercial known forever as "The Decision."

I can guarantee you, too, that Chris Bosh's upcoming documentary about the free agent summer of 2010 won't have a fleck of dandruff's worth of pure, unbridled human emotion as that clip of the Dutch players and fans celebrating a trip back to the country's first World Cup final since 1978.

The reaction of the Dutch fans and the team was genuine. These fans have been waiting their lives to reach World Cup immortality. Compare that to Miami, which has seen the Marlins win two World Series in the last 13 years, or the Heat win a (referee assisted) NBA title in 2006. They needed LeBron about as much as a New Jersey strip mall needs another spray tan boutique.

If "The Decision" was sporting rock bottom, then the emotion, passion and overall "realness" of the World Cup continues to transcend and remind us, that yes, it's okay to wear your heart on your sleeve and still like sports.(*) Maybe it's overstating things, getting overly gooey and sentimental or mixing issues or looking for a connection that isn't there. All I know is that Thursday night my stomach was gurgling, toxic cauldron of cynicism. That video of a happy Kuyt and the merry Dutch fans was like an antacid, bringing a smile to my jaded face.

(*) Of course that's assuming you can pretend Sepp Blatter and his merry band of hapless officials don't exist.

Well played by Dirk and the wacky, Dutch fans.

Chunk love Sloth. Mike love Dirk.

Spanish Bombs:

To me, the Spanish National Team is a lot like the HBO show "True Blood." I accept people like them both, but they're not for me.

Not that I don't respect Spain's technical talent and proficiency.

Nor am I among the growing American chorus that find their possession-based, passing game boring, far from it. The last two days I've probably told five or six people that, hey, this is a World Cup semifinal. Spain's out to win a game, not entertain.

As a semi-nuetral observer(*) Spain just doesn't do it for me, the same way I have next to zero interest in watching fornicating Southern vampires and other mystical beings Sunday nights on premium cable. I can see why people are attracted to it, but to me it's about as appealing as it would be for a hippee attending a Mastodon concert.

(*) I did pick the Dutch to win back before the tournament kicked off.

Having said that, I could probably watch this video of David Villa's training ground magic 10 times a day. The borderline ESP between Andres Iniesta and Xavi make the Barcelona midfielders the most influential set of teammates on the globe.

It's just ... Spain rubs me the wrong way.

Maybe it's that after reading "Ender's Game" I can't help but associate Sergio Ramos with the villainous "Bonzo Madrid." Ramos seems to represent the anti-Kuyt. The entitled, preening soccer star, who thinks he's never committed a foul in his entire life. His unchecked thuggery Wednesday vs. Germany was astounding. Go watch the tape of what Ramos did to Lucas Podolski more than once. No yellow cards there, but a ball deflecting off Thomas Mueller's arm outside the box was? Sheesh.

Maybe what it all boils down to is I've never drank the Barcelona Kool Aid, you know, how the Catalan club tries to bill itself above the fray that it transcends sport and represents a way of life. How Barca positions itself as if they're specialer than everyone else. Since this Spain team is essentially Barcelona's best, it's hard to disassociate the two.

Turns out Barca's pursuit of Cesc Fabregas was as untoward as any other club. To top it off, Barca's in debt, too.

So aside from my burning dislike of Ramos, there's not a lot concrete reasons to dislike, or more specifically not love, Spain. They just don't get my soccer juices flowing, just so you know.

Reasons the Dutch will win:

* Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel are much better suited to disrupt the Spanish midfield than Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were.

* Robin van Persie awakes from his month-long slumber. His ability to play all over the attacking third, as opposed to Miroslav Klose who was a goal box poacher, might over up space for the rest of the Dutch attackers by drawing Puyol or Pique away.

* Familiarity with the Spanish players. Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Johnny Heitinga, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and van Bommel all have played recently in La Liga. Van Bommel especially should know the training ground tricks of Xavi and Iniesta since he was part of the 2006 Champions League-winning Barca side. (Of course, they may know how to get under van Bommel's skin and finally get the Dutchman's name written into the referee's book.)

* After screwing up a 2-on-1 break that would have killed off Germany, Pedro has the "yips", meaning both he and Fernando Torres are now question marks.

* The duo of Sneijder-man and Robben continue making things happen with limited oppurtunities. Sneijder is much more accomplished that Mesut Ozil, who was over-matched in the semifinal. Sneijder has proven to be the master of the 40, 50 yard pass. If he picks up a rare Spanish mishit pass and looks up to see a streaking Kuyt or Robben, Spain is in trouble.

* Cruyff's secret master plan is revealed. The last few days the Dutch legend, between puffs of his ever-present cigarette, seems to be taking bows for taking Total Football to Barcelona, which has now manifested itself in the Spain team. (What was Barca doing pre-Cruyff? Playing in the W-M?)

Anyway, what if Cruyff's master plan all along was the build up Barca and Spain, then press a button where their Total Football brains click off and they revert to mindless, zombies who they they play for England, thus allowing the Dutch to win their first World Cup. Maybe it finally explains Cruyff skipping the 1978 tournament.

(crickets? ... yeah it sounded funny in my head at least.)

* No expectations. Spain is the clear favorite, expected to win. Plus the Dutch avoided rematches of the 1974 or 1978 finals and the burden of prior dreams that Germany or Argentina would have wrought.

* Bert van Marwijk dials up Bob Bradley and gets whatever wisdom the U.S. coach imparted to Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, helping upset Spain in the first game of the tournament. Boiled down version, to beat Spain, pack in deep, let them own possession, force them out wide and beat them on the counter.

Can the Dutch do this?

Maybe the better question is, has Vincente del Bosque learned from his mistakes in those matches?

If we'll recall, vs. the U.S. at the 2009 Confederations Cup Spain was reduced to lobbing crosses into the box, which Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit flicked away or threw their body in the way. The Swiss with Philippe Senderos and Stéphane Grichting sort of did the same thing.

Del Bosque's teams have played almost exclusively on the ground this month in South Africa, but will the unimposing statures of Heitinga (5-foot-11) and Joris Mathijsen (6-feet) make him consider playing a target forward like Llorente?

Again, the Dutch defensive strength is its midfield shield, not it's actually defense. If van Marwijk sticks with six players back maintaining discipline, Kuyt, Sneijder, Robben and van Persie might be enough to make something happen against the run of play.

* Show-selling wizard Zinedine Zidane attends the final, furrows his eyebrow in Villa's direction -- causing him to crumple in a heap -- thus putting a cap on the complete and utter joint-failure by Nike and adidas's World Cup marketing campaigns. ... Oddly enough, the abysmal "Pringoals" ad features both Cesc and Kuyt, and one of them will win on Sunday.

Reasons Spain will win:

* Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg has the "yips" too, following his botched positioning on Diego Forlan's long-range goal in the semifinal. Don't forget, Villa is still an assassin from outside the box. Go ask Claudio Bravo.

* Spain possess, possess, possess, possess and possess. Xavi completes 92 of 95 passes, Sergio Busquets hits on, say, 88 of 90 and eventually they find a crack and Villa scores ... a.k.a. the formula for the entire tournament.

Is it highlight reel stuff? Probably not. But do style points count in the World Cup final? Go call Jurgen Klinsmann and ask if he wants to give back the 1990 trophy? Or if Dunga will return the 1994 win?

* Robben switches to the left side, takes a studs-up challenge from Ramos and finally combusts into a pile of smoldering Oranje dust.

* Spain is Spain. Aside from the hiccup vs. the Swiss -- which was about 5,402 AT&T ads ago -- and grind out a tidy 1-0 win.

* Dutch outside backs Gregory van der Wiel (young) and Giovanni van Bronckhorst (old) might be susceptible to the Spanish attack.

* Spain presses in the rare times they don't have the ball, forcing de Jong and van Bommel into some bad back passes, since it's like Sneijder won't be an outlet if Busquets and Xabi Alonso sit deep for Spain.

* On a Dutch free kick, the lingering resentment by Sneijder and van Persie bubbles over, as they play out their best Lee Bowyer vs. Kieron Dyer impression.

* Spain is the most skilled team in the tournament and the cream has a tendency to rise to the top.
Final thought:

In a way, this match should have happened two summers ago in Vienna. Spain and the Netherlands were clearly the best two sides at Euro 2008, but the Dutch peaked early and got out Guus-ed by Russia and Guus Hiddink in the second round.

Spain as we know went on to thump Russia 3-0 then beat Germany in the final to ascend to the top of the footballing world. With a win Sunday in Soccer City, this Spain team attains immortality, becoming just the third team to hold both the European Championship and World Cup at the same time.

The Dutch are playing to erase the ghosts of yesteryear and get the monkey off their backs as the proverbial "best team to never win the World Cup."

But those are issue's for ESPN's pregame show, not the game itself.

However you slice, it these are probably the two best teams we've seen in South Africa, emblematic of what's been, probably, a so-so World Cup. Moments of brilliance offset my periods of controversy and inactivity.

I wavered a little bit on the Dutch ahead of the Brazil game. Didn't think they had a chance. That game, however, sets them up perfectly for Spain from a mental standpoint. If they can go down 1-0 to Brazil, they can handle what Spain throws at them.

Spain is going to find out that beating a Mueller-less Germany is a lot easier than a Dutch team with Robben firing up-and-down the wing and cutting inside on all cylinders. Sneijder finds a way -- like all tournament -- to make something happen.

If I'm wrong so be it. Even if this isn't the lovable, romanticized Dutch of yore, Netherlands 2, Spain 1 ... Hup Holland Hup.