JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The World Cup champions are an illustrious and exclusive bunch. Only seven countries belong, and just twice in the last 40 years have they welcomed anyone new.
Well, start making way. On Sunday, there’s going to be another name on that list.
Spain and the Netherlands are each seeking their first title in the World Cup final at Soccer City. The Dutch have had two cracks at it already, earning that dreaded “best team never to have won the World Cup” title after coming up short in 1974 and again four years later. Spain has had its own issues, underachieving at major tournaments for 44 long years before winning the European title two years ago.
“The group deserves this, but we want more,” sublime Spanish striker David Villa said. “We are happy to be in the final, that was our objective. But now we want to be champions.”
For all the hype over the South Americans and hope about the teams from Africa, the final will be a Europeans-only party for a second straight World Cup. And few should really be surprised that it’s come down to Spain and the Netherlands.
Spain is, of course, the reigning European champion, the game’s second-biggest title after the World Cup. It’s lost just two matches since November 2006, and its playing style bears a striking resemblance to Barcelona, which has run roughshod on just about everyone the last few years.
When it’s on, Spain is awe-inspiring. Its backline of Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila is more like a wall — and just try getting anything by goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Any team would be thrilled to have any one of Villa, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres or Cesc Fabregas, let alone all of them.
Opponents know Spain’s game is based on possession and flow, and good luck trying to disrupt that. When someone does, the Spanish are like a swarm of bees until they get it back. Germany seemed to be the class of the World Cup after routing England and Argentina by a combined 8-1 in the knockout rounds. But the Germans had only a handful of chances in Wednesday night’s semifinal loss, and looked out of sync all night.
“I am sure the Spanish can win any game,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said, “because they are dominant and it’s hard to contain their attack.”
The Dutch aren’t exactly slouches, though. They won all eight of their qualifying matches, and are perfect in South Africa, too. Not since Pele’s brilliant Brazil squad in 1970 has a squad had a chance at winning the World Cup with an unblemished record.
“We play well,” Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk said. “Spain plays well, but they are more attractive and this is where we want to get, too.”
Neither has looked particularly flashy here. At times, in fact, both Spain and the Netherlands have been downright tough to watch. One of Spain’s two losses came in the group-stage opener to Switzerland — Switzerland! — and it needed a late Villa goal to get past Paraguay in the quarterfinals after both teams missed penalty kicks. It has seven goals in its six games, and Villa has been responsible for all but two of them.
The Netherlands has squandered all kinds of chances in front of its net, often winning by just a goal. It beat Uruguay 3-2 in the semifinals, but the game was in doubt far longer than it should have been. Perhaps the best thing you can say about the Dutch is they’ve had one heck of a party in South Africa. No matter where they’ve played, an Oranje Crush of fans has followed.
“We have been messy,” Van Marwijk said. “We’ve had spells with brilliant attacks, yet we forgot to score. That though, can change within a match.”
And all that really matters is, whenever they’ve needed them, Spain and the Netherlands have found ways to score the big goals.
After falling behind to Brazil in the quarterfinals, little Wesley Sneijder came up big with two goals to shock the five-time World Cup champions. In the 3-2 win over Uruguay in the semifinals, Sneijder and Arjen Robben broke through a stifling defense to score three minutes apart.
With Spain locked up tight with Paraguay in the quarters, Villa scored in the 83rd minute, banking in a goal off not one, but both posts. And against Germany, Puyol scored in the 73rd minute on a thunderous header that sent his shaggy locks flying.
“We’ve shown that in the big moments we can grow even more,” Villa said. “We should have scored more goals, but one from Puyol has put us in the final.”
A final that could showcase everything that makes the World Cup so magical. And a final with only one certainty: the club of world champions is about to grow.