Into the Home Stretch:

So we’re down to the final question: Who to root for on Sunday? [And who will win? See below] It’s a pretty complicated tangle. If it were a simple question (as it usually is, for me) of “Who’s playing the most beautiful and creative football?,” it would be easy to get behind Spain, who were magnificent in their semifinal against the Germans.

But the Dutch, surely, have a deeply rooted claim to our affections and whatever good karma we can send their way. The Dutch are to beautiful and creative football what Little Richard and Muddy Waters are to rock and roll. The great Dutch teams of the 70s, led by the incomparable Johann Cruyff, defined a style (“Total Football”) that was as mesmerizing and melodious, in its way, as the Brazilians’ jogo bonito, a flowing symphony of short passes and diagonal runs and relentless attack . . .

But the gods of soccer, who should have showered them with riches and rewards for their contribution to the game, have been cruel — crueler to them, probably, than to anyone. One major tournament championship, the European Cup in 1988, in the 36 years since Total Football was unleashed on the world in the 1974 World Cup. [The 1974 final, Holland v. Germany, was the first soccer game I ever watched; I was at a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya (long story), and the game happened to be on, and even for someone who knew not the slightest thing about the game, it was clear that the Dutch were up to something special. Plus, who could root against the Dutch playing the Germans, a mere 29 years after the end of WWII?] Always the bridesmaid, playing the beautiful soccer, never the bride. Time and time again, they’d get close, and fail. I was at the Ajax Stadium in Amsterdam for the semifinals of the Euro 2000 championship; the Dutch had murdered their opposition (6-1 in the quarters against Yugoslavia) and had a team with sublime talent all the way through; with 50,000 orange-clad fanatics in the stands, they lost their nerve, losing to Italy on penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw, in the course of which game they missed five penalty kicks!! Five!! Two during the match, three more in the shootout. The subway back to Amsterdam after the game was full of very, very unhappy people.]

So let them win already! Who could wish it otherwise?

The problem, though, is that this year’s version of the Dutch team is playing a most unimaginative brand of football — mostly dull and defense-oriented, lots of pushing and shoving and fouling, pretty predictable in attack. It’s the Spanish who are the new Dutch — at their best (and, as I predicted, they were at their best against Germany) playing with the kind of abandon and flow that characterized the great Dutch teams of the past. [Brian Phillips, over on Slate, has some interesting thoughts on this point] [And ironically enough, the Spanish wouldn’t be playing as beautifully as they are now were it not for the Total Football of the Dutch, which Cruyff brought to Barcelona as player and coach in the ’70s and ’80s and which has remained the touchstone of the Barca style [and with six players on the Spanish starting 11, the Barca style has become the Spanish style — and just this year, Cruyff was made Honorary President for Life of Barcelona FC . . . ]. While the Dutch spend a huge amount of time whacking their opponents on the shins, or feigning agony after being whacked themselves, the Spanish are all business, all about the game; the most remarkable thing about the Spain-Germany semifinal was that there wasn’t a single foul called in the first 25 minutes or so, and only maybe 8 or so the whole game, no diving, no writhing around, no yellow cards handed out, nothing but soccer — kudos to the Germans, too, for that). In the great battle for soccer’s heart and soul between the Realists and the Romantics, the Dutch have switched sides, ceding the Romantic banner to their opponents in Sunday’s game, and a victory for Holland on Sunday will — more irony! — be taken by many as additional proof that too much beauty is incompatible with bringing home the trophy.

It’s a bit of a conundrum. This is going to be one of those games where I’m truly glad I don’t have any actual say in who wins and loses – if those soccer gods were to come to me and tell me that it was my decision, I’d be truly unhappy. It would be nice if Spain got this year’s Oscar for Best Team, and the Dutch got their Lifetime Achievement Award, but it doesn’t work like that, alas.

As to what will actually happen . . . I think the Spanish will prove too patient and too clever for the Dutch defense, and they’ll win 3-1. [And though I’m really not given to bragging, I have to congratulate myself here for the prescience of my earlier observations and predictions. I didn’t get everything right — but I had Spain and Holland as two of the four teams capable of winning it all, Italy and France and England going out early, the Brazilians not that impressive, the Africans as a group doing badly, . . . not bad!] But I won’t be heartbroken at all if I’m wrong and it goes the other way. [Especially since I put money on each of them to win — Spain at 8-1, Holland at 12-1 — at the beginning of the tournament!]

[Update: And many thanks to Visitor Again for his comment on the Magical Magyars, who were indeed before my time but who were, as the comment reminds us and legend has it, a sight to behold ]