With Spain joining the Netherlands for the final at Soccer City in Johannesburg on Sunday, the FIFA World Cup will see a first-time winner. For Spain, which started as joint favourite with Brazil but whose World Cup record is poor, this is the first appearance in a final. The Netherlands, which lost to Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978, is hoping to get third time lucky. On the previous three occasions the World Cup saw a first-time winner — France in 1998, Argentina in 1978, and England in 1966 — the triumphs were all on home soil. One of the finalists will join Brazil and Germany as the only teams to have won their first title away from home. Although the Spaniards seemed to control the flow of the game in all their matches except the very first, which they lost to Switzerland, they have not found the net as often as they would have liked to. Unlike Germany or Argentina, who looked to attack all the time and overwhelmed weaker opponents, they have not scored more than two goals in any match. Four of their five wins have been by the narrowest of margins. Yet, with their version of possession football, dominated by short passes with quick release of the ball and painstakingly slow progress toward goal-scoring positions, they have smothered opponents. Germany was never given the space or the freedom by the Spanish midfield, organised around Xavi and Andres Iniesta, which was quicker in falling back without the ball than in pushing ahead with it. Despite promising much, the youthful Germans, who clearly missed Thomas Mueller owing to suspension, were unable to run past the Spanish defence.
The Netherlands, which has won all its matches so far within regulation time, was clinical in both defence and attack, never doing more than what it needed to do. The Dutch won their opening match against the Danes by a two-goal margin, but in every subsequent match, only one goal separated them from the loser. But at no point in their matches did Oranje seem short of confidence, not even when they were a goal down against Brazil. Although they pale in comparison with the 1970s team that was synonymous with Total Football, Bert van Marwijk's men have what it takes to win the FIFA World Cup. Both Spain and the Netherlands have enjoyed their share of luck during the tournament, but then, the better teams are also likely to be luckier. In any case, none should grudge the role of luck in sport, and certainly not in a World Cup where Paul the German octopus is enjoying hundred per cent strike rate in picking winners. Breaking its rule not to soothsay about any game not involving Germany, the psychic mollusc will pick the winner of the final. It will surely pick Spain. In any case we do.