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Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Two teams, looking forward

By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com

DURBAN, South Africa -- We're down to two. Spain and the Netherlands are the only teams still thinking about tomorrow rather than yesterday. Now one of them will win the World Cup for the first time. The other will be the best team never to have won. That debate will be settled on Sunday night, along with everything else.

Already, 62 games and 30 teams are off the books. It doesn't seem that long ago when South Africa and Mexico played in the sunshine at Soccer City, that first touch of a million touches made across this country, day after day, night after night, for nearly a month.

France and Italy bombing out. England and Argentina trounced by the Germans. Uruguay sneaking by Ghana, only to run into the Netherlands, fresh from having sent home Brazil. Last left the Germans, picked apart by Spain tonight -- a pretournament favorite somehow having become an underdog, because someone has to be.

The Germans -- the same young team that had put up four goals three times in this tournament -- were given only one serious chance on net. They knew they were finished with minutes left to go. They stood in the middle of the field, with their hands on their hips, and they did the math.

One by one, seven previous World Cup champions had been knocked out, leaving only these two teams to dream of what never has been.

One of them will erase 80 years of past wrongs. The other will only add to them.

Long after the final whistle here at Durban, maybe a thousand Spaniards are still packed together in the lower bowl of this beautiful stadium, singing and waving their flags. A row of police stands in front of their cluster, and people who have left have come back to watch them from the steps, to see how long they will be allowed to sing. Right now, at 10:55 on a perfect night, they're still singing.

It's almost terrible to listen to them sing and know that there is one game still to go.

I covered the last presidential election, and it was the first time I understood how much it must hurt to finish second in a race like that. So much preparation, so much effort, so much work -- so many hours on planes and buses, so many cups of bad coffee, so many handshakes and microphones -- and then, one night, it's all over, and it's all for nothing.

The World Cup feels that way. It's possible to sit here in this nearly empty stadium and listen to these Spaniards sing and remember every last bit of it, all those small moments that make up something this massive. A bouncing ball, a turned ankle, an outstretched hand. It could so easily have ended -- for Spain, especially, after an opening wobble against Switzerland, after a conceded penalty shot to Paraguay -- but here they are. Here are a thousand Spaniards, not going anywhere.

They're still singing -- the police, for the moment, are still letting them sing, now five minutes past -- because they know how lucky they are to be here. They know that now we're down to two. And they know that on Sunday, they will either have been glad for having had so much practice, or they will have been glad for at least having had tonight.

And so they're still singing, and the police are still standing in their row, listening to them sing.

It's the World Cup, and it's quarter past 11, and nobody wants to go home.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor for ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.