• In anticipation of Sunday’s World Cup final match between Spain and Holland, I’m quickly re-reading two books I first picked up some years ago that perfectly explain the way each nation has played the game. In trying to win the World Cup for the first time, both are having to overcome some of their history.
David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, explores the “Total Football” approach of the great Dutch teams that twice finished as World Cup runners-up in the 1970s. The “talisman,” of course, was Johan Cruyff, who later coached Barcelona to European Cup glory and who said this week that it is Spain that plays the game the way he prefers. Winner sums it up thusly:
“Almost every Dutch team agrees with Johan Cruyff that ‘Football should always be played beautifully, you should play in an attacking way, it must be a spectacle.’ And everything you’ve heard about the Dutch love of spectacle and attack is true.”
• Ruud Gullit, an ESPN World Cup commentator and a Dutch Master of 1990s vintage, says forget that and just win, baby. The game has changed and so has the Dutch style:
“It’s so hard to play sexy, exceptional football all the time.
“It’s far easier to demolish a house than to build it. In the same way, a lot of teams have become difficult to beat because they’re so organised. Look how hard a technically gifted team like Spain have had to work for every result. It’s so difficult, with the speed of the game and the players’ athleticism. Football has evolved.
“The good news is that two teams who are capable of playing attacking football, Spain and Holland, have reached the final so defensive football hasn’t won – just yet.”
• This is Spain’s first World Cup final and the sense of national unity that most countries experience has been absent in the Iberian nation. Phil Ball, the author of Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, wrote that intense regional pride and stubbornness has been a drag on national soccer ambitions:
“Cervantes would have enjoyed the antics of the national team, for they have been nothing if not Quixotic. Their story is a faithful reflection of the adventures of Quijote and Sancho Panza — noble self-delusion, well-meaning failure and hubris by the cartload — although the pride of the Spanish has always been a complicated, neurotic sort of pride, tinged as it is with that fatal dose of inferiority.”
“We expect so much from Xavi and Andreas Iniesta that they might not have quite lived up to those high standards so far, but we saw against Germany that even if they are not hurting teams, they keep the ball so well that they just frustrate them.
“If they go 1-0 up they will take the life out of the opposition – and the game – with those little short passes, one-two’s, short corners. Even if they are not ahead, the situation doesn’t make a difference, because these two – and to an extent the rest of the Spanish side – still trust each other with the ball.”
• The World Cup still has a third place match, to be played Saturday between Germany and Uruguay. And neither of them would ever regard it as “The Empty Cup.”