ONLY one thing is certain tomorrow when Spain face the Netherlands in the World Cup final, there will be a new name on the trophy by the time the last firework goes off at Soccer City and South Africa 2010 comes to an emotional close.
Neither the Spaniards nor the Dutch have ever been crowned world champions before but tomorrow night one of them will join Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, France and England as teams entitled to wear a star on their jersey.
Perhaps, in Africa’s first ever World Cup, it is fitting the tournament should end in such a way, almost as if to suggest the old order should get used to the idea that football is changing – and changing quickly.
Certainly the idea that only the traditional top eight should bother turning up at a World Cup has been seriously challenged here.
The quarter-finals included no England, no France, no Italy while Ghana can count themselves unfortunate not to make the final four and Uruguay, a country of only three million inhabitants, did just that.
But what is most interesting is the style of football that has made it to the final in football’s first winter World Cup, which was meant to favour the athletic, hard-working teams who want to play the game at breakneck pace.
Germany, for all their energy and youthful verve, couldn’t make it past the intricate inter-passing of Spain, while England and their ‘kick and rush’ approach and even Denmark and their athletic style were dumped out way, way earlier.
The Netherlands’ success has been attributed to manager Bert van Marwijk’s decision to do away with an obsession with Total Football and bring in a more pragmatic system rooted in defensive and midfield solidity.
But what they do have in common with Spain is a style of play, once the ball passes into midfield, that concentrates on nursing possession and using clever interplay throughout the entire team to eventually make a breakthrough.
Even more importantly, the word that intrinsically links both finalists is teamwork.
Together with ‘team spirit’ it’s the expression you will hear most in mixed zones following matches that involve either Spain or the Netherlands, almost as if their players were reciting a mantra or a corporate mission statement; but however cynical you maybe about these things teamwork has been absolutely crucial to their success because creating goals in this World Cup, one of the lowest scoring of all time, has not been easy for the so-called big names.
Wayne Rooney, Kaka, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi all returned home without hitting the net and without adding to their reputation.
Fernando Torres hasn’t managed a single goal for Spain, either, and Robin van Persie has contributed just one for the Netherlands. However both teams have reached the final because unlike so many of their rivals they are not over-reliant on a single player.
Whereas teams such as Argentina and England are always searching for a Messiah figure to lead them to the promised land, heaping huge pressure on whoever is handed the mantle, the Dutch and Spanish have relied on a team ethic and a belief that danger can come from anywhere on the pitch.
“In this World Cup it is very difficult for strikers to score goals, get some space and create chances,” said Dutch forward Dirk Kuyt who probably epitomises the team ethic more than any other player in the tournament.
“In all the games we have played we have had more space on the sides because teams these days teams are so well organised.
“Everyone knows players like Robin van Persie and Rooney and Torres. But everyone is struggling. If you see David Villa, he is playing on the left and cutting inside and scoring a lot of goals for Spain. It looks like it is easier for players on the side to create chances and score.”
Maybe if England had been a little less obsessed with needing Rooney to be at his best to win the World Cup they would have found similar success through the likes of Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard; and maybe if Argentina weren’t so obsessed with turning Messi into the new Maradona they would have a greater understanding of the strength of their squad. That’s for another day.
Tomorrow belongs instead to Spain and the Netherlands, to a new champion, a new member of the winners club; and although one of them will end the day with a star on their jersey the lesson we’ve learned at this World Cup is that it may not be the biggest star who wins it for them.
No need for a Messiah in South Africa when you have 11 disciples instead.
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