On the bumpy road from Johannesburg to Kimberley lies the small university town of Potchefstroom, an unremarkable little place that, for the last five weeks, has been home to the football team that would rule the world.
Spain have already proved themselves to be one of the greatest international teams of this generation; if they beat Holland in the World Cup final tomorrow then even that status might be due an upgrade. Among the greatest international sides of all time? It would not be unthinkable, not with a group of players, predominantly from the great current Barcelona team, who have redefined the way we think about the game.
It is that kind of reputation that makes a visit to their World Cup headquarters so surprising. They are staying in a modest hotel next to a university campus athletics track where the grass is yellow from neglect. On a scrap of worn grass by the metal bleachers of the Fanie du Toit sports stadium some of the best footballers in the world wander around speaking to friends. The squad give their press conferences in what looks like an old school hall.
This was the great Spain team of 2010 yesterday; Carles Puyol talking to the man from the regional Catalan paper, Joan Capdevila chatting with his native Galician radio station. To say that they were low-key in their approach would be putting it mildly. They are already European champions and the majority of them play for Real Madrid or Barcelona but there is something appealingly ordinary about them.
There is an amateurishness about the Spain set-up that makes a pleasing contrast to the corporate blandness of so much of the World Cup finals. The woman with the clipboard who informs the fourth official of the substitutions? She doubles up as an auxiliary press officer. The highlight of the YouTube footage of Queen Sofia visiting the team in the dressing room after the Germany game is Puyol walking in with just his towel on.
As ever with Spain the talk yesterday was of Barcelona, who will provide six of their likely starting line-up tomorrow, plus their new signing David Villa. And if it is Barcelona who dictate the way that Spain play, then by extension that is the influence of the Dutch players and managers who have shaped that club. Sergio Busquets, the Barcelona and Spain holding midfielder, said as much when he discussed the effect of the 4-3-3 system on Spanish football.
"At my club Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruyff did a great job and brought through players from the academy because it's a philosophy that they have," Busquets said. "Frank Rijkaard also introduced the 4-3-3 system and was the one who started this style of play at Barcelona which was transferred to the national team. It's an important part, not just of the national team but certainly for Barça's philosophy."
It would take an entire thesis to explain the Dutch effect on Barcelona, beginning with Cruyff and Rinus Michels through Ronald Koeman, Patrick Kluivert and Rijkaard, which leaves out plenty of great Dutch-Barça names along the way. The Dutch might have given Barcelona, and indirectly Spain, their accomplished 4-3-3 formation but tomorrow the worry is that Holland will be unconcerned with beautiful football.
Already Arjen Robben, of all Dutchmen, is talking about winning "ugly". The Spanish also assume that Howard Webb, the English referee, will be more likely to wave play on for the kind of tackles that usually get a free-kick in La Liga. And probably worrying them most of all is the disruptive potential of Holland's hard man Mark van Bommel, for one season an enforcer at Barça.
Busquets is as close to a Van Bommel-type of holding midfielder that Spain have and he said yesterday that he expected Holland to "play their football". He added: "That won't depend on how to stop us. Clearly they will prepare how to stop us but they won't get obsessed with it because they also have their style of play. Each team will try to impose their style and play their trump cards."
The Barcelona man was among those Spain players who fell victim to South Africa's enormous petty crime problem this week, when wallets and money were stolen from rooms. Busquets came up with a nice line about how he would happily "swap my wallet for the World Cup" but the parallels were obvious. Spain do not want to leave on Monday feeling they have been robbed again.
There can be no denying that Vicente del Bosque has been presented with a phenomenally talented group of footballers. Barcelona's status as the most complete team on the planet, despite their Champions League defeat by Internazionale in May, and the triumph at Euro 2008 brings extreme pressure. Any manager who can leave out Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas in his country's first World Cup semi-final has serious resources at his disposal.
It has not helped Del Bosque that Luis Aragones, Spain's coach in 2008, had been heavily critical of the team's performances until their win over Germany in the semi-final. Since then even the cantankerous Aragones has conceded that Spain are the team to beat. But the pressure is still there, and the fall-out from defeat will be enormous.
In Spain the bite of the global economic crisis is taking hold and captain Iker Casillas said yesterday that beating Holland would be a means of giving the Spanish people respite from their problems. "History shows us that Spain has had great moments but luck was not on our side," the veteran centre-back Carlos Marchena said. "We've had great disappointments without deserving it and now maybe this era is repaying us for the bitter moments we tasted and hopefully [tomorrow] we get the best moment in history."
Marchena, 30, who has lost his place in the team to Barcelona's Gerard Pique, said yesterday that the Barça core gave the national team "a guarantee". Above all yesterday, Marchena seemed to embody the unpretentious good sense of this Spain side. Someone mentioned to him that the German octopus had predicted that Spain would win. "Well," he said, "it is just an octopus."
Two finalists dominate shortlist for Golden Ball
Spain and the Netherlands have five players between them nominated for Fifa's Golden Ball award to the World Cup's best player.
Not surprisingly, top scorers David Villa (above) for Spain and Wesley Sneijder for Holland – both with five goals so far ahead of tomorrow's final – are on the list of 10 nominees. Spain's Andres Iniesta and Xavi also figure, while the Dutch winger Arjen Robben was nominated too by Fifa's technical study group.
Completing the list are Argentina's Lionel Messi, Uruguay's Diego Forlan, Ghana's Asamoah Gyan, and German pair Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The winner will be announced after the final.Reuse content