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|Will David Villa deliver a World Cup-winning goal for Spain on Sunday?|
I have been finding it hard to sleep the past two nights. Chalk it up to the combination of a new baby, the anticipation of the two massive games of football that await us, and the looming realization that after the final whistle Sunday, the joyous cacophony of the 2010 tournament will all be over.
Yes, I did say two massive games of football. The crafty John Oliver may have clambered aboard our OTB pod and claimed that there is "no more meaningless event in sport than the World Cup third-place playoff. Not just in football; sport. Two sides that do not want to be there, seeing who's going to be humiliated the least." But I cannot help feeling fondness for the game. For sure, one team is always embarrassed to be playing and rests half of its players. But the other squad is traditionally highly motivated, taking the field with something to prove but without the pressure of an elimination game. Goals flow and the whole match is played with the spontaneity of a secret Beck gig or an impromptu Seinfeld stand-up appearance.
This year, Germany has been ravaged by the flu virus that has quietly wormed its way around the tournament. Philipp Lahm, Lukas Podolski, and even coach Jogi Low have been hit, the latter no doubt shivering feverishly yet fashionably in a styling electric-blue pair of pajamas set off by a matching cashmere water bottle. The game may lack the low-charisma scoring phenomenon that is Miroslav Klose. Though the German is just a single clinical finish away from tying Ronaldo's all-time scoring record, he is suffering a back strain. The rest of his teammates sound miserable to still be in South Africa, wishing for a speedy exit so they can head for romantic-sounding vacation spots like Ferienwohnanlage Oberaudorf.
Uruguay, in contrast, appears eager for its curtain call. Watch for it to feed the ball to Diego Forlan who surely went to bed Friday night dreaming of a magical golden shoe being placed on his tootsies by that dashing fairytale prince, uncle Sepp Blatter. And dream he might. The third-place game is traditionally goal-stuffed. My favorite has to be 1958, when France rode its offensive-minded "Champagne Football" to a 6-3 win over West Germany, with Moroccan-born striker Just Fontaine driving home four goals to tally a record-setting single-tournament total of 13. Enjoy this YouTube clip, and you too can remember it as if it was yesterday.
And then, on to Sunday's final (1:30 p.m. ET, ABC). A tough one to handicap, as the South African World Cup has been so unpredictable. It is entirely fitting that the damned octopus has elbowed (tentacled?) Larissa Riquelme aside in the race to become the lasting symbol of the tournament. A World Cup in which some teams -- Argentina, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand -- have appeared world-beaters in one game, eminently fallible the next.
Strong cases can be made for both countries. The Dutch have maintained a perfect record in World Cup qualifying and tournament play. This candid video of their postgame celebration at a deserted Green Point Stadium, leading the singing with a few thousand hardcore fans is a delight (3:18: Arjen Robben is de-pantsed; 3:25 Mark van Bommel smiles a psychopath's smile) as they celebrate with the giddiness and innocence of an under-16 team competing in a regional tournament.
The Spanish have the chance to become the first team to lose their opening match, shrug it off, knuckle down and win it all. The Queen of Spain charged into the team locker room postgame, almost catching her hero, a sheepish Carles Puyol, with his pants down. Look carefully and see how the sight of television cameras fast approaching makes Gerard Pique instinctively think about ripping off his top to give Her Majesty the bare-chested beefcake look.
The game itself will be a fascinating clash of styles. The Dutch have invested in a weld-tight defense, relying on the fast-paced improvisational magic of their front three to conjure goals. The Spanish crack crisp passes around every quadrant of the field. Normal teams defend by preventing opponents from scoring. The Spaniards simply forbid them to touch the ball. So mesmerizing and distinct is their style that even Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, nicknamed "Pythagoras in Boots," has come out for Spain: "I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing."
Both teams will have the opportunity to re-write their nation's World Cup narrative. The Dutch hope to discard the title of the best team never to win the trophy, earned after cruelly losing consecutive finals in the 1970s. Their 1974 Cruyff-led Total Football side lost the plot after squandering the lead against arch-rival West Germany. In 1978, the squad was overwhelmed by the passion and mind games of the Argentines. The Spanish have never reached the lofty heights of the final. Their preferred World Cup pattern is to dazzle early, only to melt once they are in the spotlight. Victory would allow them to add to the Euro 2008 title and prove definitively they are peerless winners, not world-class chokers.
The game, by the way, will end 1-0 to Spain. If this ruins it for you, here are five elements to watch for and enjoy:
1. Spanish smurfs versus Dutch elbows
Andres Iniesta and Xavi, both 170 centimeters, are two tiny dancers who propel the Spanish midfield. The Dutch will lie deep and attempt to break up their rhythm. Mark van Bommel, that midfield Master of the Dark Arts, revealed the Dutch game plan: "We will have to break their midfield and stop their playmakers from playing." John Heitinga is an unsung hero, an admirably maniacal defender who lurks behind van Bommel, coiled to hit anybody who manages to elude his clutches. This collision may well determine the pace, style and outcome of the game.
2. Dutch pace against tentative Spanish defending
Dutch forwards Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have demonstrated efficiency and pace on the counterattack, storming the flanks and manufacturing a remarkable ratio of goals to chances. If Spain has a weakness, it is its fullbacks. Sergio Ramos, cavalier on the right, is often out of position. Joan Capdevila is not the paciest left back in the world. If the Dutch can manage to tear the ball from Spanish feet, their plundering raids may crack the Spanish wings.
3. The Golden Shoe: A battle within the battle
When I watch David Villa play, I smell Drakkar Noir. In my imagination, Wesley Sneijder perpetually sports a leather jacket with the collars flipped. Both are tied for the lead in the race for Golden Shoe, which should add an edge to their combat Sunday. Another striker to watch is Dutchman Robin van Persie. A gifted, intelligent yet petulant performer, hampered by injury, he has had a quiet World Cup and will, for good or bad, be primed to explode.
4. Will England be disgraced one more time?
This tournament, already host of several WWE-caliber refereeing muck-ups, may be due one more massive mistake. Referee Howard Webb, a former policeman from Yorkshire, received a lukewarm vote of confidence from his wife, Janet, when she told the world's media, "I don't know how he does it. He can't take charge of his own children. I don't know how he manages it on a football pitch." Webb is the only Englishman who has performed well on the field at this World Cup. This could change Sunday.
5. What legacy will the World Cup leave for South Africa?
The opening ceremony made many tear up, as the World Cup finally came to the African continent. Then Siphiwe Tshabalala smote the opening goal, triggering a manic dance of joy from Desmond Tutu and heralding a month-long African celebration. What will the long-term impact of the tournament be? The national transport and stadia infrastructure have undoubtedly been upgraded. Up to 150,000 jobs were created, though most appear short-term in nature. UBS predicted the South African GDP will rise between 0.5 percent and 2.2 percent. The extent to which foreign investment will be attracted to flow into South Africa is yet to be seen.
Perhaps the legacy of the tournament will be simpler but still powerful. In Africa, a continent rife with factionalism and hostility, soccer has risen to become a potent symbol of hope and healing. Social projects like Search For Common Ground abound. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit produces a ratings-smash soccer-based soap opera called "The Team" in a dozen African nations. The show follows the exploits of a pan-tribal football squad to explore delicate social, cultural and political challenges that beset the oft-disunited societies. If life follows art, and the soap opera's storylines foreshadow the fate of Cote d'Ivoire, Congo or Kenya, football might help the continent to continue rocking with joy for many years to come.