July 9, 2010
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Despite being FIFA's top-ranked team for much of the past two years, Spain didn't seem to represent much more than a blip on the World Cup radar screen when the tournament got underway in June. A loss to Switzerland in its first match during group play made La Furia Roja even more of an afterthought.
Since dropping its match to the Swiss, the Spaniards have rattled off consecutive wins over Honduras (2-0), Chile (2-1), Portugal (1-0), Paraguay (1-0) and Germany (1-0). In each of their two matches prior to the semifinals, the Germans scored four goals. They were on an offensive roll. Against Spain, they notched four...shots!
If Spain was flying under the radar at the outset of the World Cup, so too was the Netherlands. That's not the case anymore. The Flying Dutchmen are a perfect 6-0 in the tournament with wins over Denmark, Japan and Cameroon in group play, and then Slovakia, Brazil and Uruguay in the three matches leading to Sunday's all-European final.
The final seems an interesting matchup. The nimble, pass-happy Spanish side against the bigger and somewhat more physical team from Holland. Neither team has been dominant to this point. In fact, all of the teams that have shown dominance at all have been knocked out, but both teams have been efficient and done just enough to get to the title match.
Spain and Holland also have signature wins over favored opponents. The Dutch victory over the most popular pick to win the whole thing, Brazil, was a stunner, at least in most circles. They made the Verde-Amarela look downright ordinary. Spain's signature win, as mentioned earlier, came against Germany.
While television networks worldwide would probably prefer a final that included some combination of Brazil, Italy, England, Argentina, France or Germany, what they get instead is a very interesting match pitting teams that have never won a World Cup, and that is not such a bad thing.
Be honest now - would you rather see Brazil hoist more hardware or see a team make history? With two teams playing for their first-ever title, this will be one of the best soccer matches of all time.
This also helps establish parity throughout the game. While everyone loves a successful team to root for or against (the Yankees, the Lakers, UConn women's basketball) the idea that more and more countries worldwide are getting to an elite level of soccer only gives more and more countries hope. USA, 2014 champs? It might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Especially after seeing a brand-new champ come Sunday.
Aside from the historic values of the final - the last time a final was guaranteed to produced a first-time winner was 1958 and the last time a new team won was 12 years ago - there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut pick between Spain and the Netherlands.
Talk all you want about leaving it all on the field. That will surely happen on Sunday. No player will want to second-guess himself about having the opportunity to win a World Cup and not giving it all he has.
There will certainly be tears - of joy and pain - and on Sunday afternoon we will know who the new king of soccer will be.
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