Here it is. The World Cup 2010 final.
For the first time outside of Europe, a European side is poised to lift arguably the most prized trophy in sports. But these are no ordinary European sides. Both the Netherlands and Spain have won every single one of their games in qualification and through friendlies. Save for Spain's opening shock defeat to Switzerland, both sides have also won all their games in South Africa.
And yet both have seemed subpar by their own standards.The Netherlands failed to spark in their opening group games. They arguably only defeated Brazil following uncharacteristic errors and a red card for the Samba men. Against Uruguay they looked wholly uncomfortable defending a two goal lead and eventually conceded through a creative set piece.
Spain have struggled against stalwart opposition.The workmanlike Swiss shocked the world through a bundled in Gelson Fernandes goal. The Iberians then struggled to break down a long string of dogged defenses in their run up to their semi-final against Germany. Even then after dominating the match for long periods, almost mirroring their Euro 2008 victory, they still failed to create a vast array of chances.
But both the Oranje and the Furia Roja are here. In hindsight their struggles on the pitch have meant nothing in their history books. Over the past two years, these have been the two best teams in the world. It may seem easy to say that the Roja are in the best of form having continually improved on the pitch, but how can you ask for better than the 100 percent winning record that Oranje posses going into the final game?
In a way, what both teams present on the pitch is only strange and unexpected considering the talent they have on paper. With the sort of star power of Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder for the Dutch and David Villa, Xavi, and Iniesta for the Spanish, you'd expect them to be tearing teams apart for fun and traipsing over to the World Cup trophy with a cute pirouette and Marseilles roulette for the hell of it.
However, save for German thrashings against poorly organized sides, this has been a tournament of conservatism.
Many have pointed to Jose Mourinho's success with Inter as a template for smaller sides to park the bus against larger opposition. Although Mourinho would likely give a small, five-o'clock shadowed grin to the notion, it seems strange that only weeks before a world cup, a manager putting men behind the ball using positional solidarity would suddenly alter the direction of entire nations.
Taking into account issues of fatigue, altitude, and familiarization with the Jabulani ball, the stock of the best players for each of these nations has been of a defensive sort. With more pragmatic, intelligent managers filling the game, there tends to be a more systematic, less idealistic approach to international football. The best managers make the best out of the quality of players they have.
Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguayan coach whose team has gone farther than any other South American side, picks a rigidly defensive formation based on the best players he has. These players start up front with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up top with Diego Forlan as a makeshift number 10 behind. The rest of the team is a core of sturdy defensive midfielders such as the silently dominant Walter Gargano and the defenders Diego Lugano and Jorge Fucile. If your team lacks wingers and genuinely creative midfielders, then how can you play attractive football?
Ghanaian coach Milovan Rajevac has also built his team, a physically dominant 4-5-1, around his best players. If these players happen to be the likes Kwadwo Asamoah, Anthony Annan, and Kevin Prince Boateng, all forcefully physical players who lack a creative spark, what kind of team do spectators expect Rajevac to build?
If this were Yugoslavia of 1990 or the Czech Republic of 2004 (or arguably the Serbian/Portugal team of this tournament) you would expect the main thrust of the team be based on proactive attack.
As is the case, both Spain and the Netherlands have face staunchly defensive teams that drop deep and squeeze the midfield.
In the first round, Portugal, rather than exploiting their talent on the wings, focused on a staunch midfield with the likes of Raul Merieles, Pepe, and Tiago closing down space constantly. The Netherlands faced a deep-lying Slovakia, one of the more pragmatic Brazilian sides in recent memory, and the aforementioned Uruguay.
Yet, despite this tactic, these two teams have slowly worked their way into games, and have often squeezed the venom out of their opposition long before the end of the match. Assuming that these are two attacking teams because of their open formations and talented squads is a misinterpretation of their focus.
For these two sides, their passing and creative qualities aren't put to creating chance after chance, because, after all, you can't make a long run of goal-scoring opportunities against well organized defenses. The quality of these teams is in their dominance. Teams can sit back and wait and grind and hope for a quick counter, but the focus of both are a constant, technically masterful, dominance of the pitch.
Patience and the occasional burst of attack at the precise moment is exactly how these two have taken control of their own destinies.
In the final, looking on paper at which side would be most likely to raise the trophy. It's hard to ignore Spain. Not only have they mastered the consensual art of positional sense, but they may have the most dominant creative mid-fielders in world football.
If both teams seek to master the possession and dominate the ebb and flow, it will almost certainly be the Roja to do it. Never have they been bested at a style that began all the way back in 1998 with the appointment of national team coach Jose Antonio Camacho. But if any team understands dominance it's the men under van Marwijk.
Either way, a nation that has never brought home the ultimate gold will do so on Sunday. The countdown is almost over for both these clockwork sides.