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July 11, 2010
World Cup preview: Despite all the glitz it comes down to just 22 men, a referee and his assistants

FIFA President Joseph S Blatter (L) and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma with the FIFA World Cup trophy. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
by Keir Radnedge, Chairman AIPS Football Commission

JOHANNESBURG, July 11, 2010 - Holland’s confrontation with Spain in the World Cup Final on Soccer City’s surpassingly super Sunday is not about as many themes as all the heads of state, film stars and A-list celebrities think as they clutter up the airways.

As a tournament, the World Cup is about showcasing the game, creating revenue for FIFA development – and other – projects, promoting sponsors, generating advertising income for TV channels, topping off South Africa’s feel-good factor and providing a platform for much more sports-related business besides.

However, the World Cup Final – singular – is about 22 men plus a referee and his assistants.

It is the most compelling sports spectacle on the planet. A world boxing bout can last 12 seconds or 12 minutes or 12 rounds; a cricket match can be washed out; a tennis grand slam decider can be over in little more than one hour or as long as four hours; a golf tournament takes four days; and Usain Bolt at the Olympics takes a eye-blinking nine seconds.

But nothing can match the dramatic certainty of the World Cup Final.

Guaranteed present: the two top nations in the game, designated as such by the fact that they are here when all the other pretentious giants – Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany and Italy – are not.

Guaranteed running time (rain, wind or snow): 90 minutes or little more than two hours.

Guaranteed human drama played out live here in Johannesburg and to more than 500bn televiewers around the world.

Feel the tension? The players will, whatever strategies they adopt to keep control. ‘Normal’ pressure, of course, they have learned to withstand. An amateur dreams of being a professional, a professional wants to play for a top club and, then, for his country. To appear at the World Cup is to move into another career sphere but one open to many.

However, to play in the World Cup Final is something unique.

None of the stars of Holland or Spain have walked this path before. No matter that the players of Barcelona who provide Spain’s core won every title available last year including the Club World Cup; no matter the perceived omen that fellow countryman Rafael Nadal recently won Wimbledon; no matter that Holland have appeared twice before now in the Final.

None of that helps.

What does matter in a World Cup Final is self-control, tactical and temperamental discipline, a totally self-sacrificing focus on the task at hand, thorough preparation for every eventuality plus a confidence born of evolving and talent.

Spain are favourites. Partly this stems from the fact that they have been playing successfully together for the last four years, collecting the European Championship in 2008; partly it stems from the secure core provided by a phalanx of Barcelona team-mates.

They have the better goalkeeper in captain Iker Casillas whose form has improved the longer the tournament has run while Holland’s Maarten Stekelenburg has started to look nervy.

Spain have the better defensive line: Sergio Ramos probably edges it as the best rightback at the finals while, in the centre, Gerard Pique brings poise and Carles Puyol seniority – plus a threat at corners as semi-final victims Germany recognised too late.

The midfield fascination is the contrast of tactical styles. Both coaches – Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque and Holland’s Bert Van Marwijk - use variations of 4-2-3-1 but, of the two 2s, Spain’s Xabi Alonso in particular and Sergi Busquets have far more freedom to roam than Holland’s Nigel De Jong and ‘orchestra conductor’ Mark Van Bommel.

Further forward brings more subtle shifts. Holland use Arjen Robben and Dirt Kuyt to play wide and deep down the wings. Spain, by contrast, use the nimble creativity of Xavi and Andres Iniesta to weave mesmeric patterns through the middle.

Thus Spain rely more heavily on their strikers – David Villa and, if he plays, Fernando Torres – to score their goals; Holland look for goals to both forwards and midfielders alike. Hence the five-goal leading marksman for Spain is new Barcelona striker Villa but Holland lean on midfielder Wesley Sneijder, their own five-goal top scorer, to sneak through into scoring positions.

The importance of the two men’s contrasting roles is evidenced by the fact that Villa and Sneijder are not only joint tournament top scorers but among the 10 nominated candidates for the World Cup’s best player award.

Compare the stats: Holland have won all their six games thus far while Spain lost their first; Holland have scored 12 goals compared with Spain’s seven. Thus the facts speak for Holland while perceptions of form tip Spain as the team whose form has been improving steadily from game to game - as evidenced by their domination of Germany in the semi-finals.

It would be a surprise if they dominated Holland as clearly. But, at the end of the 90 minutes or even two hours, it is more likely that Spain, rather than Holland, will be making history with their first World Cup triumph . . . the first European team to win outside Europe, and the first team to win after losing their opening game.

Never mind the showbiz, never mind the celebrities, never mind the politicians and the politics. Never mind Sepp Blatter and Jacob Zuma and Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron. Forget them. They matter not one iota.

All that matters on this specific occasion is the outcome of the very pinnacle of the game of association football, the ultimate peak. The Final to end them all.

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