Zero Hour in South Africa


World Cup 2010

There are two games left. The third place playoff takes place on Saturday, Uruguay against Germany in a game often described as one nobody wants to play in. It can be well worth watching though—teams have been known to forget about tactics and play with something approximating wild abandon, which in this World Cup will come as some relief.

Then on Sunday, it’s Spain against Holland; one of two favorites going into the tournament against the perennially-highly-fancied World Cup bridesmaids. Neither team has won it before, so whichever way it goes, there will be a new name on the list. It will be the first time a European team has won in another continent, a particular triumph for Old Europe, after the continent as a whole was dismissed following the group round, the commentators agreeing that the new champion would inevitably come from Latin America.

Both teams play the same formation, the 4-2-3-1 that uses the holding midfielders to prevent the other team from attacking. But oh, they do it so differently. Holland plays with two thugs there, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong to break up the attack and to do so by any means necessary or at least invisible. Once they have won possession, their only job — one they do very well — is to give the ball to Wesley Sneidjer, the conductor of the Dutch attack.

The leader of the pair is Van Bommel, who has managed to somehow commit 14 fouls, some of them proper horrors, whilst only getting one yellow card for dissent. Over the course of the tournament, Van Bommel’s star has risen in exact relationship to the amount of opprobrium heaped on him by fans. He is nasty, sly, always the first to complain to the ref about some perceived injury done to him—quite often when he was the one dishing out the punishment rather than the other way around. There is something reptilian about him; nasty eyes and an absolutely massive jaw. Without him the Dutch would never have gotten this far; he is a beast.

On the other side of the field, taking a more thoughtful approach to those same positions are Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Alonso is an elegant player; he breaks up play by blocking off the passing lanes and once he has the ball at his feet, his range of long passing is something to see. Busquets is the ball winner. Over the course of the tournament, he has developed an entirely deserved reputation for diving and petulance (he’s big with the imaginary card waving), but other than that, is a clever little player. Their job is somewhat more complicated; Spain very rarely don’t have possession so they have to be wise about knowing when to join the attack and when to sit back and defend.

Once they do have the ball, they usually just give it to Xavi, the maestro of the Spanish team and in every way Van Bommel’s opposite. He is small, slow, looks a little bit like a silent movie clown and so far this tournament has made more passes than anyone else—570 at the last count. Everything in the Spanish attack comes from him. He picks the ball up from the defenders, brings it forward into the middle and then decides how the Spanish will attack. He has something of the John Stockton about him; this is not what athletic ability is supposed to look like.

Whoever wins this midfield battle will, I would imagine, win the game. Spain defeated Germany by slowing the Germans down, forcing them to play at their tempo and keeping nearly all of the possession. Holland has shown a previously-unimaginable ruthless streak in making their way past Brazil and Uruguay. They like to get into the attack before they start to pass the ball around. If Van Bommel and De Jong manage to kick Xavi and his compadres out of the game then the Dutch have got a chance. Otherwise, as the British tourists on the playas of the Costa Brava like to sing, it’s Y Viva Espana.