RIO de JANEIRO
Until the South Africa 2010 final, Spain and Netherlands shared the encumbrance of being frequently labeled the best sides never to have won the World Cup.
That all changed the moment Andres Iniesta decided the final in the 116th minute to win Spain their first global crown and consign the Dutch to a third appearance on the Fifa World Cup podium for runners-up medals.
The final on a chilly night in Johannesburg was decided by a combination of Arjen Robben’s profligacy – his two one-on-one misses with the scoreline at 0-0 in regulation and extra time look uglier with every passing day, crude Dutch tactics and Iniesta’s calm and cool. Spain were the better side and ultimately deserving champions but Netherlands let them off the hook – twice.
History scarcely captures finer details but Netherlands, and not La Furia Roja, could have been kicking off their 2014 World Cup campaign as defending champions.
Today, the two sides meet in Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, the largest city on the northeast coast of Brazil, as World Cup powerhouses of a varying nature. Spain are the holders, back-to-back European champions and acclaimed world over for their tiki taka identity that etched itself into soccer folklore four years ago.
Netherlands on the other hand are now the sole owners of the unenviable tag as the best team never to have lifted the World Cup.
What must be galling for Netherlands today is that the ‘Total Football’ credited to them is mostly out of nostalgia.
The Oranje’s style in recent years has fallen way below the standards of the era of Johan Cruyff and coach Rinus Michels.
The 2010 final when Netherlands ditched their famed brand for a vile method in an attempt to overwhelm their sleek opponents was an indictment of Dutch football.
Football time and again does offer second chances and Netherlands under Louis Van Gaal have a chance to redeem themselves. And there can’t be a better chance than against the best passing team in the game.
Victory for Netherlands won’t avenge the 2010 loss so much like leave the Dutch with one foot in the second round and leave the Spanish in a spot of bother.
Winning your first match at the World Cup is essential; it soothes the nerves and settles the team after heightened anticipation and intense scrutiny of the month-long preparation.
Which is not to say defeat is terminal; Spain lost to Switzerland in their opening game in 2010. For Netherlands and Spain defeat, while not catastrophic, is not an option.
In a group where Chile are an awkward opponent, the holders and 2010 runner-ups will want to open with maximum points.
Of the Dutch team that played Spain four years ago, it is likely that only three will start – Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie. Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain though could have as many as seven with Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets in contention.
Brazilian-born Diego Costa could play his first World Cup match for Spain after recovering from the hamstring injury that dogged him in the final weeks of the season with Atletico Madrid.