Cope: The Netherlands and Spain meet Sunday
July 10, 2010
The irony will surely not be lost on Nelson Mandela if on Sunday he shakes the hand of a man named Robben and presents him with the World Cup.
Mandela, of course, spent 27 years imprisoned, mostly on Robben Island. Arjen Robben is the creative attacking player who hopes to bring the Netherlands its first World Cup. Three and a half centuries after the Dutch East India Company first established a supply station in what became Cape Town, the Dutch have returned to conquer the land they once ruled before Mandela’s triumphant release from prison and ascendancy to the presidency of his nation.
The Netherlands and Spain are surely the best two countries never to have won the World Cup. The Dutch have lost the final game twice, to Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978, both times to the host nation. Spain are the reigning champions of Europe and have never reached the final.
One of them will join that elite group of seven nations that has won this tournament. In fact, they will become the first new nation to win who aren’t hosting it, (England 1966, Argentina 1978, France 1998,) since Brazil in Sweden in 1958. The winner will also become the first European nation to win outside of Europe.
Why have these countries never won?
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Historical explanations abound in each case. Holland has traditionally struggled with team chemistry and an inability to stay together. As a nation, they have always been cosmopolitan in their makeup, traveling and trading throughout the World.
An extremely tolerant nation, the Netherlands and its colonies have people of widely different racial and religious backgrounds. A central part of the Protestant Reformation, they have always been skeptical of authority, resisting both the Catholic Church and Spanish rule.
In the modern era, Dutch coaches such as Johann Cruyff, Dick Advocaat, Rinus Michels and Guus Hiddink had their biggest success outside of Holland. Simmering below the surface has always been the strain of combining these disparate backgrounds into a team. Even at this tournament there have been conflicts that bubbled to the surface, between Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie, over pettiness such as the taking of free kicks and substitutions, to which many a coach can relate.
The style of play Holland brought to the world, known as Total Football for its interchanging of positions and roles on the field, has always threatened to devolve into Total Chaos due to internal arguments and walkouts.
In fact, the smug Dutch commentator on ESPN during this World Cup, Ruud Gullit, walked out on the team just before the 1994 World Cup, his second time refusing to play for his national team after leading them to the European Championship in 1998.
And you thought LeBron James was self absorbed.
Despite, perhaps because of, all of this drama, the Dutch play some scintillating football. The best goal of this tournament might have been left back Giovanni Van Bronkhurst’s laser beam of a shot into the top corner in the semifinal. That goal typified the Dutch commitment to courageous attacking play from all over the field.
The final goal in that game came from a pinpoint header from the aforementioned Robben. They have two snarling pit bulls in midfield, Nigel de Jong (who broke American Stuart Holden’s ankle in a “friendly” this spring) and the abominable Van Bommel, who will be charged with breaking up the fluid passing game of the Spanish.
These two do the dirty work that allows the creative group of Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie and Dirk Kuyt to attack at will.
Franco and beyond
Spain has its own historical legacy to overcome. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s led to a dictatorship that ruled the country until 1978. Few Spaniards outside of the capital felt much genuine allegiance to the national government led by Franco.
These divisions made it extremely hard to pull together any semblance of a national team for generations. Despite the great successes of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Europe, the national team failed to make much of an impact. Players from the northern part of the country identified themselves as Catalan or Basque more than Spanish.
These tensions may have surfaced again at the end of the semifinal when the young player Pedro, from Barcelona, found himself on a 2-on-1 break with Fernando Torres, who plays for Liverpool but was raised in Madrid.
He glanced over briefly and then decided not to play the pass and the attack broke down. One had to wonder what he would have done if he’d glanced over and seen one of the Barcelona boys.
These are young athletes for whom the historical background may mean little but, then again, these divisions run deep and are ingrained early on.
So why now? Why has Spain emerged as, perhaps, the best team in the world?
Well, the Civil War is over, Franco is dead and most of these players were born after 1978. They’ve been raised in the European Union, freely moving about and peddling their skills to the highest bidder in cities like Milan, Liverpool and London. It might also be mentioned that this team is more Catalan than Spanish, reflecting a deep loyalty, in both player selection and style, to Barcelona.
If, as expected, they choose seven Barcelona players in their starting lineup today, it will be the most players from the same club to ever start a World Cup final.
There is also a Dutch influence on this team as most of the Barcelona players were raised in a youth system designed by the Dutch great Johann Cruyff who played, coached and lives in, you guessed it, Barcelona.
The perfectionist Cruyff, the inspiration for Total Football, will be in the stands on Sunday, no doubt proud of his legacy but believing that there is an even higher level somewhere out there.
Root for the other team, Mick
If Mick Jagger is in the stands, his team will lose. You may have seen him rooting for the U.S. against Ghana, sitting alongside Bill Clinton, perhaps comparing notes. The next day he turned up to support the England team and see them continue their 44 years of futility since 1966. Then he turned up with his half-Brazillian son – well he would wouldn’t he – to see Brazil lose to the Netherlands.
The curse of Mick is real.
The quality of play and the skill on display will be extremely high today. Goals galore? Don’t count on it as these are usually tense affairs, but the potential exists. My guess would be more along the lines of a first half David Villa goal, followed by keep-away demonstration by the Spanish for the rest of the match. Either way, one of these teams will overcome their historical legacy and become world champions for the first time.
In the words of Paul McCartney, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly, all your life you have been waiting for this moment to arrive.”
For Africa, a great moment has passed without many of the predicted problems. They have pulled it off, hosting a great tournament with minimal violence, disruptions or infrastructure breakdowns. They have showcased themselves to the world and come out of it looking good.
One hopes the great Nelson Mandela is able to attend the final. Perhaps the most inspirational person of the 20th Century, Mandela has missed most of the tournament, grieving after one of his great granddaughters was killed in a tragic accident leaving the opening concert.
I am sure Mandela would have enjoyed handing the trophy to an African captain, perhaps Asamoah Gyan from Ghana, who scored the great goal in overtime against the U.S.A. Alas, it was not to be as Gyan missed a penalty in the last minute of extra time after a hand ball on the goal line by Suarez of Uruguay, thus changing the lyric of the Shakira song to, “NOT this time for Africa!”
Perhaps what this World Cup has done, rather than fulfill easy stereotypes about African athletic ability, is to break stereotypes about the inability of Africans to organize and run a complex event. Guess what? They did it.
The gracious Nelson Mandela will, hopefully, sanctify the final with his presence, even if he has to give the trophy to a European colonizer, perhaps even a Dutchman named Robben.
The great man invited us into his country and we enjoyed every minute of it. See you in Brazil.
A longtime soccer coach at Battle Mountain, David Cope has been breaking down the World Cup for the Vail Daily. He will return to his family after the World Cup final.