Spain are the old Holland in disguise. This is the way pre-match talk is heading as this World Cup final is portrayed as a battle of the clones. It falls to the European champions now to assert a non-Dutch identity. By Sunday night, the Spanish are likely to have shown a global audience that they have a few good ideas of their own.
Vicente del Bosque's side are more tortured by history than their opponents. Their second continental title at Euro 2008 conferred a respectability on Spanish football that their record at world level lacks.
Fourth place, in 1950, had been their best finish before they recovered from an opening game defeat by Switzerland to reach this final. The Catalan press are saying La Roja are really an extension of Blaugrana: the folk name for Barcelona. In this nationalistic mood they would not want to cede the credit for a Spanish victory to a northern European power.
If the theorising in Johannesburg is to be believed Holland have come up with an ingenuous solution to the ancient problem of underachievement.
They are trying to win this final by fielding both teams. If the Oranje lose at Soccer City the Dutch will still win it with the country whose football they invented, or claim to have, the day Rinus Michels touched down in Barcelona in 1971 to be followed three years later by Johan Cruyff: the Camp Nou godhead from whom all subsequent beauty supposedly flowed.
The theory that Dutch thinkers bequeathed the style Spain will bring to the field today has become so pervasive that the instinct is to search for flaws in that belief. Cruyff, a Barça idol in his playing days and architect of the Dream Team (1991-94), talks of the two cultures as if they are indistinguishable. "I am Dutch but I will always defend the football Spain play," he says. "If you play attacking football, like Spain do, you have more chances of winning. And if you try to play on the counter against a team that really wants the ball, you deserve to suffer.
"The fact is that if you try to outplay Spain they will kill you, and Holland now know they face the best team in the world. When you look at Spain, you see Barcelona, you see Xavi, [Andrés] Iniesta, [Sergio] Busquets and Pedro [Rodríguez] in midfield, players who want the ball but then will put pressure on high up the pitch to win it back. Now, deservedly, Spain are in the final, a match that is only about winning, as I know. Spain have a great footballing generation, who may never get another chance like this."
The premise, encouraged by Cruyff, is that the finalists are blood brothers. The lineage runs like this: at Ajax from 1965-71 Michels revolutionised Dutch club football, pioneered kaleidoscopic Totaal Voetbal (Total Football), exported it to Catalonia, handed it on to Cruyff, who then shaped the Barcelona raison d'être in the Ajax image, before Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard kept it going, then passed the torch to Pep Guardiola, the current coach, who was a Barcelona player under Cruyff and Van Gaal.
A startling statistic is that 17 members of both squads are graduates of the Ajax and Barcelona academies, and since seven of Spain's starting XI against Germany on Friday were Barcelona men you can see why this game is being sold as a contest between two incarnations of one philosophy.
Unusually, though, only one of Holland's 23 – Rafael van der Vaart – plays in Spain, with Real Madrid, in contrast to the days when Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Van der Vaart and Royston Drenthe were drawing wages at the Bernabéu, and Van Gaal was flooding Barcelona with Dutchmen.
"Yeah, maybe Spain is influenced by Barça and Barça is influenced by Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels. That's a big compliment for Dutch football," said Bert van Marwijk, the current Holland coach. "Maybe that's a bit ironic but I don't think in that way. We respect Spain but we want to do it our way.
"At the moment I think Spain play a little bit more attractive than we do and we would like to play football as attractive as them. Spain are playing very well with the ball but without the ball they are reacting very quickly so it could be a very interesting game for two teams trying to play football."
This subject is all the rage. Busquets told journalists: "I can say about Van Gaal and Cruyff, who've been at the club where I play, that they did a great job and brought through players from the academy because it's a philosophy they have. Rijkaard also introduced the 4-3-3 system [Busquets ought to have said re-introduced] and was the one who started this style of play at Barcelona. It was subsequently transferred to the national team. With Barça's philosophy they have helped [Spain]."
Cruyff, who talks often to Van Marwijk, has assumed a kind of emotional dual nationality. Loyalty to the old country competes for his affections with the sense he has that his greatest imprint, post-playing, is to be found on the Spanish game. He says: "It's the Spanish players who are better to work with. Dutch players already start to say 'Yes, but' when you open your mouth to speak."
In both camps a tradition of feuding has subsided, and this, as much as stylistic innovation, may explain why there will be a new name on the trophy this weekend. In Spain the Catalan-Castillian schism has healed.
Specifically both countries line up 4-2-3-1, with two screening players, one striker and a conductor. Holland have Wesley Sneijder and Spain use Xavi in the No10 position. But Spain have a second artist – Iniesta – in an attacking midfield role, and their two holding players, Busquets and Xabi Alonso, are vastly superior ball players to Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. Spain's defenders are considerably more agile and expressive than Holland's rather more wooden back four. The Dutch have compromised on their history; the Spanish have slapped gold paint on theirs.
To be strictly analytical, too, Spain's soft one-touch tippy-tappy passing is not identical to the classical Dutch method, in which the probing is sharper and more angular. But both teams aim to "circulate" the ball and "think spatially": two requirements from the Dutch bible.
Van Marwijk's Holland talk as if to match Xavi and Iniesta's passing is unfeasible, so some are raising the spectre of Internazionale's Champions League semi-final triumph over Barcelona, for which Sneijder was a catalyst. To contain Spain and apply more lethal finishing than Del Bosque's team have been able to demonstrate in three successive 1-0 wins may be Holland's deepest hope.
There are other differences, too easily overlooked as this philosophical union is declared a fact. They are to be found in temperament, character, language, upbringing, deportment and tone. Dutch fans are not like their Spanish counterparts, and the flavour of games at the Bernabéu and Camp Nou is not interchangeable with those in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. After his team had knocked out Germany in Durban, Xavi boasted: "The Spanish personality imposed itself." He said nothing about the Dutch. © Guardian News and Media 2010