Come Sunday, either Spain or the Netherlands will win the World Cup for the first time. That's a big deal, especially when you consider that both teams have long competed for the unwelcome distinction for being the best team to never win the World Cup. After Sunday that debate will be settled, as one team gets to add the much-desired Star to the national kit, while the other will carry around that unwelcomed distinction of the "Best team to never win it" like an albatross around the neck.
For the neutral fan, choosing between the two sides is a difficult choice to make. Unlike Brazil, Germany or Italy, neither team has accomplished all that much on the World's stage, and its very difficult for either team to be cast in the villain's role. Imagine what it would be like if the Red Sox (pre 2004) played the Cubs in the World Series. Nobody would know quite what to make of such an improbable situation; yet, here we are, with two unlikely would-be champions squaring off in what surely will be an historic finale.
Both Spain and the Netherlands offer compelling reasons for fans to cheer them on, and what follows is a brief case why you, the average American soccer fan, should root for the La Furia Roja (Spain) or the Oranje (the Netherlands).
The Case for Spain: It's simple: A victory for Spain would be a victory for pure soccer, an affirmation that winning soccer can also be a pleasure to watch. Spanish players rarely exhibit pointless flash on the pitch, yet they have some of the most technically gifted players on the planet. Energy is efficiently expended, and is never wasted on frivolous runs or selfish forays into the attacking third. Spain plays together, one of the reasons why they are able to keep possession for lengthy periods of time. Even against the best teams in the world, Spain is able to play keep away and reduce their opponents to chasing the ball around the pitch. It's hard to argue with graceful dominance like that.
And there is the history of Spanish football and what this game would mean to the country. For a nation with such an abundance of football talent, Spain has constantly underwhelmed at the World Cup (until now, of course). This can be partly explained by the fact it was always difficult to bridge the regional and cultural divides between so many of the players, to say nothing of the difficulty of bringing FC Barcelona and Real Madrid players together. This Spanish team, the one playing for the World Cup Trophy, the team of Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Carlos Puyol (FC Barcelona), Xavi Alonso (Real Madrid) and Xavi Hernandez (FC Barcelona), is the most unified Spain has ever had. It shows on the pitch. Winning the World Cup will be yet another boost for further national unification and hopefully silence the demagogues who prefer otherwise.
And lastly, Spain is a tough place to be these days. Astronomical unemployment numbers and a spiraling national debt have Spain teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Winning a World Cup won't fix any of Spain's major problems, but it would be a nice distraction.
The Case for the Netherlands: Unlike Spain, which is relatively new to this whole World Cup thing, the Dutch have been here before. Twice in the 1970's the Dutch played in the World Cup final, and twice they lost, heartbreakingly so. First, in 1974, they lost to their archrivals Germany. Then, in 1978, they lost to an Argentina team they should have beaten. The Dutch have been close, and it's hard to imagine what losing a third title game would do to the Dutch psyche.
The Dutch football team has always carried around a reputation for playing inspiring football but losing the big game, and doing so in spectacular fashion. Missed penalties, unkind woodwork, dramatic collapses, the Dutch have seen and done it all. But the 2010 Dutch team seems to be a little different. They've yet to lose at this World Cup, and even in their wins this team looks less like the Dutch teams of old and more like the determined German teams of yesterday, not tremendously flashy, but focused on getting the results. Vital to this Dutch team are their two defensive midfielders, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel. Ruthless (and maybe a little reckless) in defense, de Jong and van Bommel allow the Dutch glamor boys to do their work upfront. It's not glamorous what they do, but it's necessary.
In their quarterfinal game against Brazil, the Dutch fell behind early, only to claw back into the game thanks to a freakish goal off of a deep free kick. Shortly thereafter, Wesley Sneijder headed in a goal off a corner kick to put the Dutch up. The only thing stranger than the Dutch beating Brazil (finally!), was for them to do it on a headed goal. Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football legend, had unkind words for this Dutch team, but they now have a chance to do something Cruyff never did -- win a World Cup. If the Dutch do win on Sunday, it will because they got over their egos and learned how to play winning football. It might not be pretty, but it beats losing all the time.
The real shame of this match is that one of these teams has to lose, and will thusly be stuck with the unlucky loser label for at least another four years. For the loser, it will be an all too familiar feeling. For the winner, well, it will be an entirely new kind of experience.