Say goodbye to the psychic octopus: World Cup final preview

This Sunday morning at 11:30 am PT in Johannesburg, Spain and the Netherlands will play in the final match of the World Cup. This will be a matchup of two of the best soccer-playing nations in the world that have never won a World Cup. One nation will get to sit at the grownups table of soccer powers, while the loser will remain at the kids table for at least another four years.

The Spanish and Dutch have a history. The Dutch won their independence from Spain after the Eighty Years War. However, that conflict ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia (which also concluded a separate conflict known as Thirty Years War.) But since then, the two nations have been on fairly good terms, the War of Spanish Succession notwithstanding.

This final is the first time that the World Cup final matches up two countries that I've already visited. (Since I've never been to Brazil, Argentina, Italy, or France, it's not easy for me. On the other hand, if Estonia ever makes it to the World Cup final, I'm covered.) And I enjoyed visiting both countries, even though I had my wallet lifted on the Madrid Metro. But I won't hold that against Spain. After all, I've had my pocket picked in Century City, too.

Both Spain and the Netherlands have rarely lost recently. In 42 matches since the beginning of 2008, Spain has lost just twice, to the U.S. in the Confederations Cup in 2009 and a loss in its first match in the World Cup to Switzerland. Spain also drew with Italy in the 2008 European championships, but won on penalties. Over the same time period, the Dutch have played 36 times and have been beaten just twice (by Russia in the 2008 European championships and a loss to Australia in a friendly later that year) along with six draws.

The Dutch lost in the finals in 1974 to Germany (played in Germany) and in 1978 to Argentina (played in Argentina). Spain has never gotten this far in the World Cup. Spain's win in the European Championship in 2008 was the nation's first of its kind. The Dutch won a European Championship in 1988. The two teams have never faced each other in the World Cup. Spain has won the most matches in the World Cup (24) without winning a championship than any other country. The Netherlands is second in that category with 19 wins.

The Spanish are slight favorites. Spain does almost everything perfectly except put the ball in the net. Spain has dominated possession in every match it has played, however, with the exception of David Villa who has five goals, La Roja have had problems converting their numerous chances into scores. Fernando Torres, who was supposed to pair with Villa to create an unstoppable combination up front, has played so poorly that he was benched for Spain's 1-0 semifinal win over Germany.

As for the Oranje, they've played a style of soccer that has not been full of flair and dash. Instead, they've settled for playing a style that gets them wins, i.e., it's much more physical than people who remember the era of Johan Cruyff and Total Football. The Dutch have five goals from Wesley Sneijder, including two in a quarterfinal win over Brazil. (Villa and Sneijder are tied with Diego Forlan of Uruguay and Thomas Muller of Germany for the tournament lead in goals.)

For a recap of the tournament as a whole, I'll direct you to my brother's work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He gets to vote on the MVP (Golden Ball) for the tournament also. However, there are about 10,000 voters so I doubt lobbying him would make much of a difference in the final outcome.

If Spain can score early, the Dutch could get frustrated. But, Spain has not shown much ability to score early. In its last three matches, Spain has scored just one goal, scored in the 63rd, 83rd, and 73rd minutes of the match. The Dutch gave up an early goal to Brazil however and that didn't seem to bother them.

Paul, the psychic octopus of Oberhausen, has picked Spain to win. I thought Spain would win before the tournament started, so I guess I should agree with our clairvoyant cephalopod overlord. I own jersey for both Spain and the Netherlands, so I can go outside Sunday appropriately attired.

Although the World Cup final is one of the most widely watched television programs in the world (I can't find any reliable estimates, but I would imagine that the number would put the Super Bowl ratings to shame), ABC, with Martin Tyler and Efan Ekoku calling the action, will have just a one-hour pregame show. For Super Bowl XLIV, CBS ran close to 6 1/2 hours of pregame programming. And there aren't any commercial breaks during the action, so after the match, there will be critiques of what happened on the field instead of discussions of advertising.

There will also be a regular 15-minute halftime that will serve as a time for most people to go to the bathroom instead of subjecting people to the South African version of Up With People or other such Super Bowl halftime nonsense. (I've been deeply scarred by Up With People halftime shows. I've woken up in the middle of the night screaming, "Make the maniacally perky people stop singing sappy pop tunes!")

For many people in the U.S., their interest in soccer will go into hibernation until this same time of the year in 2014, when Brazil hosts the World Cup. And in four years, there will be people complaining about how they don't like soccer, or people complaining that Americans don't appreciate soccer.

I don't see why this argument has to be brought up again and again. You can look at the World Cup (and soccer) this way. Pretend that the world of sports is like an art museum. Some people go to see modern art. Some people go to see antiquities. Some go to see Renaissance art. The World Cup this year is like going to a museum and finding out that there is a big special exhibition of the works of Rembrandt and Velazquez. Maybe you don't want to see those artists. You know what? You don't have to. The museum has other things to go see.

Sunday's match might not be a work of art for everyone. But, for the winning nation, the game will be a masterpiece no matter what.

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