To the Victor the Spoils
There are a couple of things we know for certain ahead of the World Cup final on Sunday. One is that Englishman Howard Webb will referee the big game, after having what many, including FIFA quite clearly, consider to be a commanding and controversy free tournament. Webb’s standing on the international stage is still a lot higher than it is back in England of course, numerous errors in the Premier League over the past 18 months tarnishing what was once a stellar reputation. Ask any Newcastle fan about Webb for example, and they will point to a game towards the end of season 2008-’09, when he disallowed a perfectly good goal that would have given the Magpies a vital win over Fulham. The error sent them down.
The other thing football fans will be aware of is that the World Cup will have a new name on it come Sunday evening. Neither Spain or Holland have ever won the trophy before, so whichever country reigns victorious will become the 8th nation to rule the footballing world. This can only be a good thing, as the fact that up to this point only 7 countries have ever claimed the prize, and of them England and France have only done it once and that was on home soil, does not reflect well on the strength of the global game.
What kind of World Cup final will it be? One containing sides with contrasting styles, that’s for sure. The free-flowing, and often swashbuckling Spaniards, against the well-drilled and combative Dutch, for whom this has been a tournament to be proud of. Red versus orange, Mediterranean versus the Lowlands, beauty takes on the beast. But of course the last comparison is being very disingenuous to a Dutch side containing the wonderful attacking talents of Wesley Sneijder. This guy alone ensures Holland always carry a threat on the attack.
Sneijder in many ways has been the star of this World Cup. Aside from the fact that he is the joint top-scorer with 5 goals, and how he was credited with the Dutch equalizer against Brazil in the quarter-finals only the geniuses at FIFA know. He has been the creative master in a team that was badly in need of one. Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk took a risk of sorts in pinning the bulk of his hopes on Sneijder. If the Internazionale schemer had been out of sorts in South Africa after what had been an exhausting, if ultra successful season with the Nreazzurri, then the men in Orange would have been looking to an unhappy Robin van Persie, a selfish Arjen Robben, and a limited Dirk Kuyt to fire them to glory. In short Holland would be home by now, and along with a mean defence, Sneijder is the main reason they are 90 minutes from glory.
In many ways Spain have the opposite problem. They are overloaded with creative players, midfield marvels like Xavi and Andres Iniesta have been every bit as good as we’d hope they’d be. But it really is incredible to think sometimes that a player as extravagantly gifted as Cesc Fabregas cannot make Vicente del Bosque’s starting XI. Fabregas has lit up the Premier League on a consistent basis over the past number of seasons, and yet has to be content with cameo roles for La Seleccion. That’s not to mention the likes of David Silva, recently transferred from Valencia to Man City for a Kings ransom, Pedro from Barcelona who started in the semi-final at the expense of Fernando Torres and the emerging promise of Javi Martinez, who surely won’t be playing his club football at Athletic Bilbao for much longer. None of these three have been regulars either in this World Cup.
So while the Dutch camp arrived in South Africa knowing that Sneijder would have to carry his club form into this tournament for them to stand a chance, the Spanish came to the party with the confidence that comes from being European Champions, and the knowledge that if one part of the machine broke down there were other supremely talented options on hand to restore it to full working order. In essence this is why I believe Spain will emerge victorious on Sunday night, because when push comes to shove it will be the team with more of the answers to the questions posed.
At the back you could pick holes all day long in the respective defences, but let’s just hope defences won’t be the deciding factor in a match that’s shaping up to be a final to remember. Spain definitely have the edge in goals, with San Iker Casillas having rediscovered his mojo, and the lumbering Martin Stekelenberg not covering himself in glory in the semi-final win over Uruguay. At centre-half most people would take Pique/Puyol over Heitinga/Mathijsen. But if forced to choose I’d select the Dutch full-backs Gregory van der Wiel and Gio van Bronckhorst, over their Spanish counterparts Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevilla. As overall units I see very little to split the back fives, and they appear to cancel each other out.
There is a nice symmetry to Spain’s accomplishments over the past couple of years however, that mirrors the exploits of the great French sides of 1998 and 2000 that pulled off the World Cup/Euros double. And of course symmetry is something that springs to mind when watching Xabi Alonso and co. in action on the pitch. There is a precision to their passing that is almost hard to comprehend. It’s neat and tidy and pleasing on the eye. But it’s often deadly too, and that is what sets them apart. Whilst it was a rudimentary goal from a corner that put paid to the Germans in the final four, the Spaniards still passed their Teutonic foes to death. The likes of Lahm, Scweinsteiger and Klose simply had no answer.
So watch out for Sergio Busquets on Sunday, and the job he does on Sneijder in an attempt to quell the main Dutch threat. If it’s a task the young Barcelona player is up to, and evidence suggests to date that he’s a man for the big occasion, then I expect the combination of Xavi, Iniesta and Villa to guide Spain to the sweetest victory of them all.