Let the game begin

11 July 2010 - 02:23 By Football Staff, SAPA-AFP and Reuters

A new football superpower will be created tonight. The World Cup finalists - Spain and the Netherlands - represent the two greatest football nations never to have won the tournament.

Just as a watershed moment in World Cup history is guaranteed, so is grand spectacle.

The two nations involved share an idealistic commitment to open, elegant football. And a succession of hugely influential Dutch coaches at leading Spanish clubs - Johan Cruyff, Guus Hiddink, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard - indirectly helped to engineer the dramatic rise of La Roja over the past decade.

But the bonds of ideology and mutual respect will be slashed at Soccer City at 8.30pm. And there's enough of a contrast between the two sides to give the final a mouthwateringly spicy edge: the unrivalled passing sophistication of the Spanish will be pitted against the speedier counterattacks and combative attitude of the Dutch.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said the "moment of euphoria" of beating Germany has passed. "I think we're conscious of the responsibility we have now," he said.

Both teams are on impressive runs, with the Netherlands unbeaten in 25 games, having won their last 10 encounters - while Spain have won 30 of their last 32 matches under Del Bosque, who expects an even final between two creative teams of great technical ability.

Dutch captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst will end his playing career tonight. "I couldn't dream of better farewells," said van Bronckhorst, 35, who scored a stunning goal in the 3-2 victory over Uruguay in the semifinal.

"It is our tournament. I have sometimes had the feeling that we cannot lose. We have not always played extremely well, but we have scored at pivotal moments."

Van Bronckhorst says he did not have the same feeling when the Dutch shone during the group stages of Euro 2008. "I have not yet had the same feeling these past weeks that I had two years ago during the fantastic matches against France (4-1) and Italy (3-0).

"I really thought that team would go all the way but then we played Russia and we were running on empty.

"It would be beautiful if we produced that sort of form (the group form from Euro 2008) in the final, because to become world champions in your final match, is something rare."

"I saw on television the joyous scenes that swept the country when I scored that goal (against Uruguay)," he said. "It was crazy. That made me really emotional to have made so many people so happy. And I wouldn't dare to imagine what will happen back home if we win."

Two gurus of Dutch football - Hiddink and Cruyff - have offered contrasting views on Bert van Marwijk's team. Hiddink, who guided the Dutch to a 1998 World Cup semifinal, praised the side's pragmatism.

"The Dutch have become a little like the Germans of yesteryear: realism has replaced beautiful football," he told Algemeen Dagblad.

"Of course, it is not always pretty, and I would like more time spent playing nice football, but what Van Marwijk and his players have succeeded in doing is extraordinary," said Hiddink, 63, who is now coaching the Turkish national side.

"Who am I to criticise, when I have never coached a team that has reached the World Cup final?" said Hiddink.

Cruyff raised eyebrows this week by announcing that he will support Spain in the final, but expressed his admiration for goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg and winger Dirk Kuyt.

Cruyff's celebrated Dutch side lost to West Germany in the 1974 final. He later played and coached at Barcelona for many years, and now coaches the Catalan regional team. Speaking to De Telegraaf, Cruyff praised Van Marwijk for his success in constructing this team. But also said that not all the players had performed to their best. "Half of the players are very good, the other half have still to show that they are," he said.

"Stekelenburg and Kuyt have played at a level nobody thought they were capable of." This week he wrote in the Barcelona newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya that he had to set aside patriotic sentiment and support Spain for the title. "Spain, a replica of Barca, is the best publicity for football," Cruyff wrote.

"Who am I supporting? I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing."

While some Catalan separatists in Barcelona will be cheering on the Dutch, the Spanish charge to the final has sparked a countrywide eruption of patriotism.

La Roja have brought a ray of hope to Spain during desperate economic times.