So here we are, a month on from the kickoff and wondering what we did with our lives before the 11th of June.
It all comes down to this: an unlikely final between Holland and Spain. But in a World Cup of firsts, it’s only fitting that the two contenders are battling for their first crown. Remarkably, this will be the first World Cup final without Brazil, Italy, Germany or Argentina. And the first since 1978 in which neither team holds a previous crown.
Before I begin, an interruption here for irresistible Germany:
Germany, without a shadow of doubt, were the highlights of this tournament. And there was one overarching reason for why I adopted them as a favorite once the tournament began: it just wasn’t the mechanical Germany of old. Ozil, Muller, Neuer and Khedira have given them a wholly different outlook.
By incorporating successful Under-23s into the senior squad, Germany showed the world exactly how a good team must be run. Ageing England would do well to learn a thing or two from this squad. So, too, would the frequently infuriating Pakistan cricket team, which desperately hangs on to the likes of Shoaib Akhtar and Shoaib Malik when it would be better served giving our consistent U-19s a chance at the biggest stage. There was a welcome cosmopolitan feel about the Germans, too: naturalized Turks and Tunisians at the heart of the Deutsch midfield are a rare sight.
Then there were those experienced men — Podolski, Klose, Lahm, Mertesacker and Schweinsteiger — who never seem to disappoint at international level. And in the 4-1 drubbing of England, they duly dispatched the myth of English footballing superiority. Then with 4 more, they sent mad Maradona and Lio Messi packing.
Now, about those two finalists.
The Road to the Final: Both Holland and Spain have followed reasonably similar paths, in terms of opposition, to Soccer City. Holland eased past Denmark, Japan and Cameroon in the group stage, before overcoming Slovakia, Uruguay and, of course, Brazil. Spain recovered from a shock defeat to Switzerland before beating Chile, Honduras, Portugal, Paraguay and finally Germany.
International Achievements: Spain have only once before been past the quarter-finals at a World Cup. European championships in 1964 and 2008, and an Olympic gold in ’92 are their only crowns. Holland, meanwhile, finished runners-up in consecutive world cups in 1974 and 1978. Their only trophy was Euro 1988, immortalized by this stunning van Basten strike.
Holland’s Key Man: Pacy Arjen Robben, on the left flank, should cause Capdevila some discomfort. Expect Xabi Alonso to drop back and cover.
Spain’s Key Man: David Villa cut a lonely figure against Germany, despondent in his isolation against a 5-man midfield. But if he can find his way past the Holland defense, he could find himself on the front pages.
Tactics — Spain: Del Bosque faces a tactical dilemma. With both Torres and Villa up front, Spain can trouble a Holland defense that was exposed at times by Robinho and co. But if Sneijder and Robben have to be stopped from constructing incisive attacks, Spain may opt to sit 5 in midfield with Villa as a lone striker.
Likely 11: Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Torres, Villa.
Tactics — Holland: The Dutch can sit back, absorb the pressure of overwhelming Spanish possession, and look to attack at rare opportunities. Or, if they’re smart, they’ll play smash-and-grab. With De Jong and van Bommel, Holland can disrupt Spanish passing in the center, frustrating the Spaniards and counter-attacking through Sneijder, Kuyt and Bronckhorst.
Likely 11: Stekelenburg, Heitinga, Mathijsen, van der Wiel, van Bronckhorst, van Bommel, de Jong, Kuyt, Sneijder, Robben, van Persie.
Why Spain Should Win: Quality of football. In Xavi and Iniesta, Spain arguably have the best distributers of the ball in the world.
It’s all about passing, the beautiful game and David Villa. And, for a nation whose league boasts clubs like Madrid and Barcelona, the fact that their previous best at world level is 4th (and that, too, in 1950) is embarrassing.
Why Holland Should Win: Holland are like Turkey and Croatia — no one really hates them. It might not even be an exaggeration to label them the most lovable team in the world. A world crown for the Oranje is long overdue: the Gullitts, Cruyffs, Neeskens, van Nistelrooys, Bergkamps, Rijkaards and van Bastens couldn’t do it. It’s time for the class of 2010 to deliver. Plus, a third world cup final loss would just be heartbreaking.
And then, of course, there was this strike of some class from the captain:
One Man Who Shouldn’t Be Let Near the Final: Pedro. Selfish, selfish play in the semi-final cast doubts on his nationality. Which other Spaniard wouldn’t pass to a goal-starved Torres in this 2 v. 1 counter against the goalkeeper?
Predictions: Shazil is going for a 2-0 win for the Dutch, with goals coming from two unlikely sources: de Jong and van Persie, who hasn't really got going this time round. Umair, meanwhile, is tipping Xavi to score the only goal in a 1-0 win for Spain.
For me, the heart says Holland, the gut says Spain. I’ll go with Der Hollander 2-1 a.e.t., with Sneijder edging ahead of Villa in the battle for the Golden Boot. HUP!
Link of the day: To get into the mood for some World Cup football, turn up the volume and click here.