As a Spaniard and a football manager, it will come as no surprise that over the years I have come to know many of the players who will will hold the world's gaze on Sunday. Not all are Spanish.
I had the pleasure of working with both Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder at Real Madrid two seasons ago, and it does not surprise me at all that either man has had such a fabulous year so far.
But it is Carles Puyol whom I have known the longest. The immense central defender you saw draw up every last drop of energy to put Spain ahead against Germany, and then keep them in front with 17 minutes of heroic defending and inspirational leadership, actually started life as a flying right-winger – and therein lies one of the great strengths of this Spain team, and perhaps one of England's greatest weaknesses.
I gave Carles his debut for Barça when I coached Barcelona's second team, Barça B, back in the 1996-97 season. He played at right-back in a 1-0 victory and he was already showing signs of becoming a great defender, but he had previously played for Barça C as right-winger before then moving inside to play in midfield.
Playing as an outside right, having to go past full-backs, will have helped him enormously when it then became his job to stop wingers reaching the byline. And having to cross the ball as a wide player will have helped him do so as an overlapping full-back. Just as his time spent playing in midfield will have helped him to step out with the ball as a central defender.
Versatility in young players pays dividends when they mature. If you look at the current Spain team, probably only Xavi and Sergio Busquets in midfield and Iker Casillas, the keeper, have not played different roles.
Sergio Ramos, the right-back, has also played many times at centre-half or in midfield. Iniesta can play across the front as well as in midfield. David Villa looks like being top scorer in the tournament but he has played wider when Fernando Torres been at centre- forward.
In contrast, in England, there tends to be a drama and a lot of debate when a player has to play in a different position. I know when I was at Spurs we experimented with playing three at the back, and the full-backs pushed on into midfield – but some of the players had trouble adapting and did not seem to know what they were supposed to being doing on the pitch.
Giving players a position, and believing they can only play in that one position, is a hindrance rather than a help. Players need to be able to adapt to different positions not just during a tournament but often during a game. At international level, of course, you need your specialists, but you need a group of good footballers first and foremost.
That Puyol B-team I managed also had Xavi in midfield, although he was soon moved into the first team. It is incredible that so many players that came through at Barcelona now form part of the most successful Spain team in history. And just like the versatility, that one-team factor is another massive bonus for the national team coach.
I said at the start of the tournament that the real star of this World Cup would be a team and not any one player, and that team emerged on Wednesday night in Durban. It is of course Spain, but it is also, to a great extent, Barcelona.
Seven of the 11 starters were Barça men and they played the Barcelona way, with defensive midfielder Busquets just in front of Puyol and Gerard Pique, allowing the full-backs to play in advanced positions. Joan Capdevila was superb, as was Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, who played as Dani Alves does for Barcelona.
It makes Vicente del Bosque's job as national team coach so much easier when he can base his team on a domestic side. The players are comfortable with the tactics because they play them week in, week out. In the case of Xavi and Andres Iniesta it's more year in, year out because they have been playing that way together since they were youth-teamers.
There is no problem with making the team gel because you are lifting great chunks out of an already perfectly tuned machine – that defensive triangle at the back formed by Pique, Puyol and Busquets played together for the whole of last season. They have an understanding that no national coach would be able to install with just qualification games and friendlies.
Another advantage is the way a team based on so many already-established working relationships can integrate young players. It is no wonder that Pedro came in and showed no nerves despite the fact that he is still only 22, and that only two seasons ago was playing third division football in Spain. He came into a side with so many familiar faces. He was receiving passes from Iniesta and Xavi just as he does at club level. No doubt that helped him. And the same can be said for Busquets, who has played in this World Cup as if he has been playing at this level all his life. It might be his first World Cup but the understanding he has with the Barça team-mates around him has made it like just another La Liga game for him.
The Germans played with more fear than I expected. I think they had the 1-0 defeat two years ago in the European Championship on their minds. They gave us too much respect and they paid the price. In the end the score was just 1-0 but the difference was much greater.
This is a great group of players. Several of them I knew when they were just starting – like Puyol. And several more are still just starting out, like Pedro. I hope they can win the prize they so richly deserve.
But yes, I have huge respect for those other two on the pitch I have had the pleasure of coming to know: Sneijder and Robben. Back at Real Madrid in 2008, they were always excellent in training – they'd just turn up and get down to business. Wesley has had a great World Cup, and in the many, many chats I had with Arjen, it was clear he loves playing that position wide right that allows him to come inside and shoot – everybody knows what is coming but it is very hard to stop.
Had I stayed at Real, I'd have kept them, but instead they had to leave in 2009 and it doesn't look like Wesley will be returning, despite Jose Mourinho's interest. It always pays to sign players who have something to prove, and Mourinho will have recognised that in Wesley, knowing that he was not happy with how he was treated by Real Madrid. With the extra motivation of taking revenge, a player always give a little bit more.
Now they will be wearing Dutch shirts, hoping to win Holland's first ever World Cup, and standing between Spain and our first ever World Cup. As I said last week, attacking football will win the tournament. But for me, that attacking side will be Spain.
Selection: Naming starting line-up late keeps players on the ball
It was interesting to hear Pedro saying he had only been told he was playing shortly before the match. Fabio Capello was criticised for telling his England players late, but there is a simple reason why coaches do this. You tell a player a day before a game that he is not playing, it is only natural that he switches off slightly. That complacency can then spread through the team. You want every single player 100 per cent focused on the job in hand as close to the kick-off as possible, which is why managers often reveal their starting line-ups so late.
Rule changes: I draw the line at awarding goals to punish handball
I don't think we should change the World Cup just because of one incident – I would not give a goal for a handball on the line. The current punishment of a red card and a penalty is sufficient. It was sad to see Ghana, who gave so much to the tournament, go out that way, but the rule should remain the same.
One thing should change, however. You don't need Nasa scientists to get involved, you just need to give the fourth match official a monitor and allow him a few seconds to prevent the referee from making a big mistake. The Frank Lampard "goal" should never be allowed to happen again at a World Cup finals.Reuse content