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History beckons for European giants

JOHANNESBURG, July 9 – Every World Cup final is like a walk on the precipice of history.
An abyss of despondency awaits the team that slips, joy unconfined for the one that retains its footing, and never has the gulf between the two outcomes been as great as it will be at the conclusion of Spain’s date with Holland on Sunday.

Virile football nations the pair of them, yet, almost inexplicably, both still awaiting their first conquest of the most ardently-desired prize in sport.

One of them will come of age on Sunday. The World Cup will have a new winner. But only one country’s demons can be laid to rest at Johannesburg’s Soccer City.

Recent pedigree suggests Spain should be able to bring down the curtain on Africa’s first World Cup by drawing a definitive line under decades of under achievement on the international stage.

The triumph of La Roja that most pundits are predicting would make them only the second country to have the right to call themselves European and World champions at the same time, emulating the great West German side of the 1970s.

The principal elements of a squad that waltzed away with the Euro 2008 trophy in Vienna two years ago remain in place and, in the view of Germany’s coach Joachim Loew, the cocktail is more potent than ever.

"They know each other so well, it is like they are playing on auto-pilot," Loew said after his side’s 1-0 semi-final defeat at the hands of the Spanish.

The manner of that victory was instructive for anyone seeking to understand why this generation of Spanish stars is held in such esteem.

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For over an hour, a German team whose youthful exuberance and clinical counter-attacking had dismantled England and Argentina in their two previous matches, was reduced to chasing Spanish shadows, lulled into passivity by the relentless rhythm of their opponents’ imperious passing game.

Yet, in the end, it was Carles Puyol’s bull-like charge into the penalty area and an unstoppable header that bludgeoned the Germans to the floor.

Spain’s football may come encased in thick velvet but there is a structure of steel at its core.

For Vicente Del Bosque, the former Real Madrid coach who took over from Luis Aragones after Euro 2008, the job has largely been about keeping a well-oiled machine ticking over.

In contrast, his Dutch counterpart, Bert van Marwijk, has built a team of potential world beaters from components that suffer in comparison to the parts at the disposal of his predecessors.

In 1974, when Holland suffered the first of two successive World Cup final defeats that continue to haunt the nation’s football psyche, Johan Cruyff was the finest player on the planet.

Likewise Marco van Basten in 1988 when the European Championship was sealed by the greatest goal ever to grace a major final.

As ever, the Dutch can still call on some fine, technically-gifted players today. But it is telling that even their most valued assets, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, would not be guaranteed a place in Spain’s starting line-up.

Against that backdrop, van Marwijk, a spiky, abrasive character, at times gives the impression that he is as much motivational psychologist as orthodox coach.

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Judging by the success of his half-time team talk in the quarter-final win over Brazil, it is a role in which he excels.

A match the Brazilians were winning 1-0 and appeared set to win at a canter, was turned on its head by Sneijder’s second-half double in a manner that has served to strengthen the self-belief that van Marwijk has instilled in his squad.

"We are ranked number three in the world. We’ve beaten Brazil. Of course we can win the World Cup," he said in the aftermath of that win. "If that sounds, arrogant, so be it. We should not be ashamed of saying it."

The relative lack of stars in the Dutch squad may also explain another factor in their current success; the absence of the factional in-fighting that was as much a part of life for the total football generation of the 1970’s as it was in the Ruud Gullit/van Basten era and reached its nadir when racial faultlines in the squad were exposed at Euro 96.

As the Arsenal striker Robin van Persie put it: "When you have a group of players where half of the team is not talking to each other, when one man does not like another, or when someone is not happy when someone else scores, you are not going anywhere."

The Dutch have been steadily going forward since their illuminating group stage performances at Euro 2008 were followed by a crushingly disappointing quarter-final defeat by Russia and van Marwijk sees no reason why the progress should not culminate in victory on Sunday.

"We haven’t experienced winning a (World Cup) final but neither have Spain," he says. "We respect them but we’re not afraid of them."

Key to match

Pressure. It doesn’t get any more intense than this, so how the two sides handle it will be key. Playing an open game against Spain is the football equivalent of Russian roulette but, as Germany found out, defending deep and in numbers might not work either. Striking a balance somewhere in between those two options will be the challenge for Holland if they are to upset the odds.

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