07/09/2010 09:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Spain vs. Holland -- a Bitter history

As it became clear that Spain would face the Netherlands in the World Cup Final, I was reading Arturo Perez-Reverte's historical novel The Sun over Breda. It's a reminder of the bloody and painful history that joins these two nations.

The novel is part of a series set in the early 17th century that tells the story of the swashbuckling Captain Diego Alatriste and his youthful ward Inigo Balboa. In this particular novel, we find the pair involved in the brutal Spanish war against the Netherlands that has come down in history as the Eighty Years' War.

In the 16th century, the Netherlands became part of the vast empire ruled by Spain's King Philip II. When many Dutch joined the Reformation and became Protestant, the aggressively Catholic Spanish crown tried to put them down, executing hundreds as heretics and imposing the Inquisition on the rebellious population. Additionally, the Spanish used tax revenues from the wealthy Dutch provinces to finance its religious wars elsewhere. Eventually, in 1568, the Dutch revolted, setting off a war which continued, with a few pauses for truces, until 1648. The war eventually melded into the Thirty Years War which engulfed most of Europe.

The war was fought with unprecedented brutality and atrocities, captured brilliantly by Perez-Reverte in his novel. Cities were besieged for months, sometimes years on end. When taken, they were often sacked by marauding troops who looted, pillage, raped and murdered the civilian population.

When the Dutch soccer team sings their national anthem, "Het Wilhelmus" on Sunday they will be singing about this war. The song is written from the perspective of William of Orange, first leader of the revolt and states:

A prince am I undaunted,
Of Orange, ever free,
To the king of Spain I've granted
A lifelong loyalty.

This loyalty ended when William became a proponent of religious tolerance. In a famous speech, William said that though he had decided for himself to keep to the Catholic faith, he could not accept that kings should seek to rule over the souls of their subjects and deny them freedom of belief and religion.

The tenth stanza speaks explicitly of Spanish atrocities:

Nothing so moves my pity
As seeing through these lands,
Field, village, town and city
Pillaged by roving hands.
O that the Spaniards rape thee,
My Netherlands so sweet,
The thought of that does grip me
Causing my heart to bleed.

Philip II offered a reward of 25,000 crowns to anyone who killed William the Silent, calling him a "pest on the whole of Christianity and the enemy of the human race". William was assassinated in 1584 by a Catholic, Balthasar Gerard, providing the Dutch with an enduring symbol of national martyrdom. Gerard was hideously tortured and executed by the Dutch. Philip provided his family with three country estates and raised it to the peerage.

All this of course was long ago and will scarcely be in the players' minds on Sunday. Win or lose, they will hopefully shake hands and exchange jerseys after the game. Millions of Dutch and Spanish will watch on TV, exulting in the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Nobody will die.

It all goes to show there is hope. Wars do not last forever. All conflicts, we may hope, eventually end and fade into history. The hatreds they engender become buried in the sands of time.

So I say, long live soccer.

My prediction for the World Cup final of 2110: Israel vs. Palestine.