Dutch self-belief is strong enough to deny the artists
Spain's beautiful game may meet its match in Sneijder's steel
The Italians don't always play the beautiful game, as they reminded us when leaving here so early, broken, tear-stained world champions, but almost invariably they speak it.
When they won their third World Cup in Madrid in 1982 it was said their coach, Enzo Bearzot, had "set free the caged bird of Italian football". This week an Italian newspaper was more economical but no less eloquent when it ran the front-page banner headline, Spagna, che guapa! – "Spain, how beautiful!"
Italy, surely, speaks for all of the world beyond the borders of Holland, the other great but unfulfilled football nation who are also attempting to win their first World Cup here in the Soccer City stadium tomorrow.
The Spanish, no one can dispute it, are beautiful. They have other striking virtues. They run with incomparable commitment – and with a vision that sometimes hints at extra- sensory perception. In an age of scientifically applied fitness, superior nutrition and stifling tactics they have disinterred some of the glories we had reason to believe had been buried for ever with the passing of wonderfully creative teams like Hungary, Brazil and, yes, Holland.
Like the club who provided the foundation for their brilliant European Championship success in Vienna two years ago, Barcelona, Spain have declared their belief in football as a living art.
So why are Holland taking the trouble to show up at Soccer City? It is because they believe – with a certain coldness that was not always present when their predecessors, led by Johan Cruyff and Rudi Krol, lost successive finals in the 1970s – they have a very good chance of winning.
They believe that in Wesley Sneijder, who in the last few months has already claimed the Champions League, the Italian title and cup, they have a player of sufficient bite and tactical savvy to upset the odds. They think that Arjen Robben, delayed by injury until the knoc-out phase of this 19th World Cup, can undermine a Spanish defence which was magnificently led by Carles Puyol in this week's semi-final against the young German shock troops.
Their cool and pragmatic coach, Bert van Marwijk, also has a hunch that Arsenal's Robin van Persie is finally posed for a triumphant climax to his fight to put behind him an injury-ravaged season.
These are the three main strengths of the Dutch case and they are persuasive enough to draw this onlooker into football heresy. It is the one that says Holland will win, maybe by a score of 2-1.
With the greatest of respect to a Holland who have now won their last 14 competitive games under Van Marwijk and have the huge scalp of Brazil, the team some imagined were going to power their way through to a sixth World Cup victory, this is not what you would want in a perfect world.
You wouldn't want Spain's exemplary virtues of heart and grace and unceasing pressure, to go unrewarded. You wouldn't want the crescendos of one-two punching by the world's most dynamic midfielders, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, to drain into futility. You wouldn't care to see overwhelmed the quicksilver opportunism of David Villa or the extended frustration of Fernando Torres as he seeks to recover from injury and regain the form that made him arguably the world's best and most thrilling striker.
Nor would you want the ferocious leader Puyol to have his locks snipped like Samson's. But then sometimes we do not have the choice. Just as this football world isn't perfect, nor is the Spanish team. They lost to Switzerland, a team whose greatest strength was their willingness to mass behind the ball, and were not always convincing in a series of one-goal victories broken only by the 2-0 success over the brave but essentially makeweight Hondurans.
This week they produced a near masterpiece against the German team which had persuaded many they would sweep the tournament. It was a shut-out by the Spanish of sometimes breathtaking skill and judgement and was worked with such industry and application that some spectators must have felt at least a touch of fatigue.
Yet it was accompanied by the harrowing possibility that, but for a Puyol header from a corner that carried atavistic force, the often utterly outplayed Germans might have found a way to win. That would have been seen as an outrage but the Spaniards again created their own hazards by a failure to deliver the knockout blows.
The great Cruyff continues to set patriotism aside and proclaim the brilliance of the Spanish. He says that their victory would also be one for football, and who could disagree except Sneijder, probing relentlessly, Robben unleashing his extraordinary talent, and Van Persie seeking to join the elite of the world game?
Cruyff also insists that when Spain opened their campaign with the loss to the Swiss he remained totally undismayed. "I saw in the DNA of the performance that Spain could still win the tournament. Their football is a joy." With such a demigod in their ranks, the Dutch may feel they are scarcely in need of foreign detractors. But, of course, the man who was christened the Golden Dutchman by the fans of Barcelona is right. In a real sense, the team led by Puyol do represent everyone who cares about the health of the world's game, its enduring capacity to not only entertain but also entrance.
Still, you can also understand the irritation of the laconic Van Marwijk when he declares: "Yes, I also love the way Spain play. I think they are great for the game and I can't remember ever having more enjoyment as a spectator than when I watched Barcelona in the first half at Arsenal in the Champions League. But now I'm a coach, not a fan, and you should know that we Dutch have our own way of playing – and it is a good way."
It was certainly one that alarmed the Brazilians, who suffered a convulsion in the quarter-final they seemed to be controlling until Sneijder, snapping and nagging, conjured two goals. The trouble was that, even if you had been described as the Big Bad Yellow Machine, you were not likely to intimidate the Dutch. Lucio, who had looked so immense in partnership with Juan in the middle of defence, feared as much on the build-up to the game that he believed was likely to announce the champions-elect.
"What worries me," said Lucio, "is their ability to convert defence into attack so quickly. Against Slovakia in the second round they gave the perfect example. Sneijder found Robben with a brilliant long pass and the rest looked easy. You can never relax against opponents capable of a goal like that."
Spain must believe that they have the ability to outplay the bruising Dutch midfield of Mark van Bommel and the restored Nigel de Jong and that the sheer weight of their revolving pressure will wear down the 35-year-old captain, Giovanni van Bronckhorst. They have so much on to which they can attach their faith.
Villa looks as if he could find space in an old telephone box. If Iniesta was maybe not at his most acute in the semi-final, he remains a midfield welterweight who can punch as cleanly as Sugar Ray Leonard, while Xavi is doing his football version of Roberto – Hands of Stone – Duran.
Puyol displayed almost demonic force against Germany. Gerard Pique must have caused Sir Alex Ferguson to sigh over the paternal inclinations that persuaded him to send the big defender back to Barcelona.
When you add it all together, you must speculate all over again about anyone's ability to withstand such strength and versatility on football's most important stage.
However, there is another factor that cannot be ignored. It is that the Dutch are deep in a groove of winning football. Robben cheerfully dismisses any Dutch ambition to challenge the aesthetic superiority of Spain. "Yes," he says, "everyone likes to play pleasing football. But I don't mind winning ugly. Sexy football is nice but it is winning that matters."
Robben has plainly noted that it required a moment of pure Iniesta brilliance to put down Paraguay, something he could not produce against Switzerland. An ultra-defensive Portugal were outplayed but again the margin was as fine as could be. Germany could claim to have had the best of all chances in their semi-final settled by that force of Puyol at a set piece.
Holland suggest strongly they have weighed the evidence and that it has been at no cost to their self-belief. They admire Spain but they do not fear them.
What we are left with, deliciously, is the strong sense that this often meandering and underperforming World Cup has found its way to a brilliant climax – maybe the best since Maradona 24 years ago broke Germany with one breath of genius.
If Holland win, and the gut feeling here is that they will, they will walk among the bones of a beautiful team. However, football will still be able to celebrate the sheer scale of its power to both delight and intrigue.
Three who can sink the Spanish
Robin Van Persie
50: The Arsenal striker brought up his half-century of caps against Uruguay in the semi-final
2: His goal against Cameroon in the group stages was only his second in World Cup finals.
15: Shots on target by the forward, nine coming from inside the area.
5: The Internazionale midfielder's five goals at the 2010 finals have come from just seven shots on target.
325: Passes made by Sneijder, the third-highest in the Dutch side.
48: Years since a midfielder last ended top scorer at a World Cup - Chile's Leonel Sanchez in 1962
5: Shots from outside the area by the Bayern Munich midfielder
12: Fouls suffered by the winger, despite playing just four games.
3: A third of Robben's 15 international goals have come at the World Cup – his two in South Africa following a strike in Germany in 2006.
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