Four teams now stand poised on the brink of World Cup glory: Spain, Germany, Holland, and Uruguay. Winning the ultimate prize in world football would represent something magnificent for each of those countries, but with varying degrees of breathless wonder.
Urugay vs. Netherlands, July 6.
Germany vs. Spain, July 7.
Germany (as West Germany) has won the World Cup thrice, in 1954 in a final against Hungary, in 1974 against Holland, and in 1990 against Argentina. A win for Germany would be their first as a unified nation, and would represent a new chapter, or, rather, a closing of the old. Former talismanic captain Michael Ballack has had to sit out this entire finals, and that is probably the best thing that could have happened to the young German side. While Ballack would bring a wealth of experience to the table, based on his silverware picked up in the employ of Bayern Munich and then of Chelsea, that experience would be certainly counter-weighted by his plodding pace, tendency to pass backwards, and an overly cautious approach drilled into him by former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. One thing this World Cup has emphatically proven is that a reliance on senior stars is a recipe for an early exit. Germany’s young stars don’t need granddad telling them how it is; they are seeing it for themselves, learning to trust each other on the pitch and having a rampantly joyous time. Ballack’s anti-football he has been playing at Chelsea is anathema to the current crop of high-flyers. When they face Spain on Wednesday, expect to once again see a collection of individual stars (Spain) get comprehensively played off the park by a ruthless and fleet team (Germany).
Uruguay won the first-ever World Cup, and were the host nations in 1930. The format of course was different then, and only 8 teams competed in the finals. After back-to-back Brazil wins, the World Cup took a time-out for the world to have a gigantic war. Resuming service in 1950, Uruguay again won, this time in Brazil, in a round robin tournament that has subsequently been rejected in favor of a proper “final.” For star man Diego Forlan, he leads a side that has forever languished in the long shadows of those victories. The Uruguayans know their country can win the World Cup and for 60 years have waited for their boys to bring it home. Bookmakers are giving long odds on Uruguay making it to the final, and it’s easy to see why: it took an astonishing handball off the line and then a missed penalty to save Uruguay’s bacon long enough for Ghana to choke in the penalty kicks. There is scraping by on the skin of one’s teeth, and then there is scraping by and leaving an entire pile of flesh behind and a naked skeleton on the other side. Uruguay will feel they are living on borrowed time anyway in the next match and hopefully will play with a carefree attacking style. It might also allow for Holland to, at long last, turn on the style. Uruguay vs. Netherlands will be a contrast in styles, but expect the Oranjemen to comfortably win this one.
Holland and Spain are both underachievers, with Holland perhaps being the more schizophrenic side. The Dutch failed to qualify for the finals in 6 consecutive World Cups (1950-1970) and then appeared in back-to-back finals, losing both. The Dutch momentum was lost again, and they failed to qualify for the next two Cups (1982, 1986). From about 1988 onwards the Dutch have more or less cemented their place as one of the best sides, if not in the world, then at least in Europe, where they have enjoyed better luck in the European Championships (which is basically the same idea as the World Cup, just limited to Europe). The current side has shied away from the concept of Total Football (all players being essentially interchangeable, all attacking and defending together as a unit) in favor of tactical acuity and killer short passing. One of the standout players of this tournament has been the diminutive midfielder Wesley Sneijder, whose bald pate gave the Dutch the go-ahead goal in their match against Brazil. His teammates like Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Dirk Kuyt are leading playmakers in their European club sides, and only just considered outside the world’s absolute best footballers. A World Cup win would do a lot to reimagine their worth in the eyes of world soccer.
Spain entered this World Cup as either “the favorite” or “one of” the favorites, and getting to the last four has at least vindicated the latter prediction. After winning the 2008 Euros, Spain were considered to be head and shoulders above the rest of Europe, and looked forward to this World Cup as an unstoppable march to the winners’ podium. Last year in South Africa, this same Spanish side was humiliated by a 2-0 thumping by the USA. Suddenly it appeared the emperor had no clothes. How could a gang of so-called journeyman Americans dump the star-studded Spaniards out? Indeed, that’s the question of the hour for Uruguay, and one would assume they have been assiduously studying the match tapes from that day of ignominy. Fernando Torres was completely ineffective against the muscular and disciplined USA defense, and so has he proven to be in the World Cup. His arrival in Liverpool heralded a rich vein of scoring for his club, becoming championed as one of the greatest finishers in the world, but for his national side he has been so anonymous as to have been withdrawn after an hour against Paraguay. Spain still boasts talent like Iniesta, Xavi, and David Villa, so all is not lost, but for as much firepower and starpower as this Spanish team is loaded (or burdened) with, they really need to turn it on in this Cup. So far the Spain games have been lackluster and barely adequate, which is eerily reminiscent of Italy’s campaign in the 2006 World Cup.
Barring some more unpredictable madness that has featured so heavily thus far in this tournament, expect a Holland vs. Germany final. One can’t gird against handball saves, missed penalties, unspotted legitimate goals, and sudden star-making matches, so there is plenty of drama left in the final 4 matches of this amazing World Cup.