Alright, I am making an exception and doing a world cup final preview of sorts on this blog. So play along.
There's a lot of interesting talk before the biggest game of the spectacle - most experts out there are calling it for Spain. Oranje, the perennial 'nearly men' of the International football scene will have to wait longer, it seems and the Spaniards, the proponents of the beautiful game, are the favorites going into Sunday. While that prediction is fairly reasonable by itself, what I'm not convinced by is the theory that this result is "better" for football.The dutch are being dutchered for abandoning the 'total football' philosophy that got them their fan base (and not as many trophies) and Spain are seen to be upholding the values of the game that appeal to the discerning viewers.
Take for example, this Brian Philips piece in the slate that argues that all fans should 'root for holland to lose'. It talks at length about how this side doesn't uphold the legacy of total football that's so inherently associated with the dutch football team and then ends with:
Barney Ronay, on the other hand, notes that Spain are often boring, and claims that it's the evolution of the game (away from it's roots) that's caused this Spain side to adapt to it's style.
"Nevertheless, Spain's style is a similarly coherent, and similarly beautiful, approach to the game. And that's why I hope Spain will win the World Cup on Sunday. It's not because I don't like Holland; it's because I like the history of Holland so much."
"But still the feeling persists that this is an oddly frictionless excellence; that Spain play a kind of platinum-selling dinner party football – Coldplay Football – that is clearly and undeniably high spec, but also devoid of jarringly revelatory spikes and twists. Playing against Spain must feel a little like playing a chess computer: strangled, impotent, you gawp helplessly at its robotic grace."
Even if you disagree, those are interesting takes. However, I often feel we get carried away with labeling sides and imposing our standards on a team/country based on outdated stereotypes. I didn't like this Brazil side and that was not because they somehow didn't conform to a Brazilian football blueprint in my mind (they didn't) but because I simply didn't think they were good enough.Often countries produce different teams across eras that have nothing in common and that's OK. If they play to a philosophy and not the currently available skills, they are quickly labeled as tactically naive. If they play to their strengths, like the dutch are in this case, they are labeled to be boring and bad to watch and somehow betraying their founding principles. Although winning may not be everything, it should always be your intention to play to win. How many of you will remember this Chile side and the way they set out against Brazil in 2 months time? Would you place more premium on the fact that this dutch side is still unbeaten through the qualifying campaign and through this WC or diss them as they don't somehow fit the mental model you had in mind for them?
The other difficulty I have with this argument is that often teams that don't win hide behind the excuse of 'hey at least we play beautiful football'. Wenger's Arsenal sides are a prime example of that recently. The aesthetic of the game is sometimes over rated and always subjective. So while Mourniho's Inter perhaps didn't float your boat, they did beat a seemingly invincible Barca side with pure discipline and dogged commitment. Values that are under-rated and perhaps not as glamorous but central to a lot of alternative footballing philosophies. And don't get me wrong, I like myself a 6-4 affair every now and then and dislike teams that generally park the bus and know nothing to do beyond that. But such teams don't go far. And it's unfair to paint this dutch side with the same brush.This team has a couple of 35 year olds in the back four. In Van Bommel and De Jong they have quality defensive midfielders. There's nothing wrong in the system they chose to play with that maximizes their strengths. 2 top notch defensive midfielders protecting the iffy back four and using a fast winger on the break. Total football? Hell no! Effective, functional, maxmimizing their chances to win? - A resounding YES!
Now where I am willing to concede is that it's ok to dislike this team simply because you don't like them. You don't like that Van Bommel can literally get away with assault. That he commits 20 odd fouls in a game and yet doesn't get booked. That Arjen Robben is a prime contender for the Oscars next year and makes Cristiano seem like an apprentice. Those reasons, I will not argue with.
Now let's talk about Spain. Spain's reasons for the system are no different than Holland's.Xavi and Iniesta are once in a generation players who can keep the ball all day. Spain as a team are highly one dimensional and predictable. They'll always have more possession. They'll always out-pass the opponents to death.They never have a plan B (yeah sure, send Pique up front!). But there are very few occasions that they need a plan B.They are playing like this not because of a philosophy but because this crop only knows to play like this. They don't have tall and buff central forwards to play as target men to launch long balls into, e.g. It maybe 'prettier' to watch I give you that but if it comes to nothing on Sunday, I will still challenge the argument that the result was 'bad' for the game. And that somehow a Holland win reinforces everything that's gone bad with the sport.
The final is beautifully balanced. The dutch system is nicely suited to this Spain side - Van Bommel and De Jong wil set out to disrupt the holy trinity of Xavi/Iniesta/Pedro(presumably). Robben will be a handful on the break and his ability to get set pieces in crucial areas would be key. The German side blew England and Argentina and bossed those games and therefore when faced with this Spanish side, seemed out of ideas as they hardly saw the ball. The dutch however have played sides who played better than them for long spells like Brazil. They should, in theory, be better prepared to cope with ball starvation. Spain on the other hand, won't change a thing. This is how they play. This is how they'll play. It'll be interesting to see if they get to keep as much of the ball as they like. Couple it with the nerves of the big game, we may have a closer affair than many are predicting. One thing in their favor though is Howard Webb. He won't be as lenient with the likes of Bommel and is pretty card happy. All in all, an intriguing game on the cards. A 0-0 after extra time and 5-4 on penalties then, eh? :)