- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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Sixty-two games down, two to go (including Saturday's third-place game). The international curtain will descend after Sunday's final act: Spain, the best team in the world never to play in a World Cup final, versus the Netherlands, the best team in the world never to win one.
These are concepts -- a mano a mano, winner-take-all finale -- that an American audience should respect. The Dutch national team and its long but frustrating excellence brings to mind those American sports teams always in the conversation, always good, sometimes very good but never great. The pre-2004 Boston Red Sox or pre-2002 Anaheim Angels, or pre-title Syracuse Orange men's basketball teams; or, going into the way-back machine, the San Francisco Giants of the 1960s, who finished the decade in second place for five straight years.
The Dutch have always been strong but never favored, while the Spanish have been talented but less predictable, prone to occasional brilliance but ultimately felled by fatal divisiveness, regional rivalry and political fracture. (Uniting Madrid and Barcelona is the equivalent of asking Boston and New York to put aside their differences for a month every four years.) Spain's supporters and observers often have been left to wonder what such talented clubs could have achieved if they'd played with one agenda with one common goal for one moment. Spain is the Democratic Party of international soccer.
Yet finally -- like the Democrats, the Red Sox and the Orange (the Giants are still waiting for that first World Series title in San Francisco) -- both of these teams have broken through. Only one obstacle remains: each other.
The Dutch, technically solid and stylistically enjoyable with precise passing and respect for the team aspects of The Beautiful Game (Arsenal's Robin Van Persie and the left-footed striker Arjen Robben, despite his histrionics, are joys to watch) have hovered near a title for years. There was the 2006 World Cup, that painful 1-0 loss to Portugal in the round of 16 marked by its brutality, that led to a recognition by the Dutch that maybe they needed a bit more "nasty" in their game (along with more shots on goal to augment their passing artistry). The Netherlands departed a pitch littered with 16 yellow cards and four reds that day, embittered by losing to a Portuguese side that nearly undermined its own talent with its constant diving.
Two years later, during Euro Cup 2008, the Dutch appeared to have found themselves, beating Italy 3-0 and France 4-1, only to lose 3-1 in the knockout stage as a favorite to Russia. A secondary insult: The Russian manager at the time, Guus Hiddink, is a Dutch coaching legend, having won multiple titles with PSV Eindhoven.
The Dutch lament then in Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Den Bosch and Rotterdam was the same as the Red Sox, Angels and Giants laments had been for so many years stateside: never quite good enough and, curiously, never quite fortunate enough to have luck play the favorable and decisive role it has for so many other sides.
And yet, those crushing losses forged the current team, which is as close to a championship as the nation has been in 32 years -- since 1978, when the Dutch lost to host Argentina in the World Cup final. This is a team that is cresting. In 2006, FIFA ranked the Dutch seventh, and they have been in the top five ever since. Entering South Africa, the Netherlands was ranked No. 4 in the world by FIFA, and it has won its past 25 matches. With characteristic will and uncharacteristic luck, it beat Brazil in a stirring comeback and hasn't lost a game in this World Cup. The traditional Dutch finesse is also accompanied now by muscle, courtesy of rugged defender Mark Van Bommel.
Still, caution remains evident, as it was reported during the 3-2 semifinal match victory over Uruguay that the Dutch team had reserved hotel rooms through only July 5. The Dutch players never thought they would be here.
Spain's football history also has prevented it from thinking big. But like the Netherlands, Spain has been primed for this championship World Cup run for several years. Between January 2008 and March 2010, Spain was the top-ranked team in the world by FIFA, although Brazil replaced it just two months before World Cup began. Spain is 48-2-3 in its past 53 matches. But Spain lost its first game in South Africa to Switzerland, and no World Cup team has ever won the whole thing after losing its first game.
The same Euro Cup 2008 that broke Dutch hearts bolstered Spain, providing the springboard for Sunday's final. Spain beat Germany 1-0 in the Euro final two years ago. That the Spanish were considered surprises to still be playing now is only a byproduct of history and the ease with which we fall in love with the hot team. Germany -- young and carefree, fast, physical and soaring throughout the tournament -- was that team.
Germany was the equivalent of a fast-breaking basketball team that, when it is playing at its best, looks as though it cannot lose.
But in the semifinal, Spain dominated with its deliberate play, smothering the midfield and limiting a deadly German counterattack that buried England and humiliated Argentina. Spain commanded the action, turning a 0-0 game into a mismatch of ball control, frustrating the Germans while waiting patiently for the one opportunity that might put it in the final, the winning strike that came in the 73rd minute from a Carles Puyol header off a corner kick.
At long last, the energy and acceptance (at least anecdotally) of soccer and the World Cup by the American sports viewer has been one of the welcome surprises of the month. The World Cup has been a cultural exchange of sorts for Americans, who have redirected the interest and energy of the most lucrative fan base in the world to the international game. The World Cup finally seems to be a success here, even as it comes with some well-deserved lampooning from the world stage. ("America is finally learning what all the fuss is about after 80 years," one commentator said during the spirited U.S.-Algeria group game.)
Still, the sport (FIFA in particular) might do well to pay heed to the impatience and frustration with the game among many novice American fans. Americans don't demand total accountability from our sports, but we do demand some, and it is clear that FIFA's officiating and culture will not and should not survive intact following these games. In the long term, an American audience will not accept a system of officiating where referees do not have to explain themselves to the participants or the public. Soccer officials have too much power over the game in progress and, because of the yellow-red suspension system, over the succeeding games in a tournament.
Culturally, I suspect it is not simply its low-scoring nature that for so long has made soccer inaccessible to an American public that craves -- and has generally been accommodated by -- more offense. It's also the diving, flopping and faking of injuries that undermine every competition. In his seminal basketball book, "The Breaks of the Game," the late David Halberstam wrote about the Celtics' Dave Cowens tiring of the flopping by Mike Newlin, a Portland Trail Blazers player in the late 1970s. On one trip down court, Cowens bull-rushed Newlin and flung him into the first row with a two-handed shove. And said, "Now that's a [expletive] foul!"
The number of fans who have wanted to apply the same treatment to Cristiano Ronaldo, among others, must count into the millions.
Strategically, the world and the Americans have met in the middle. The showing of the U.S. team has added to the global accessibility of the sport, while American fans seem to finally appreciate that soccer isn't going give us a 10-8 game with six lead changes, which we can get at Coors Field. This isn't that. Soccer is a wonderful chess game in which teams may use 90 minutes to set up one score and then defend that one tally. American audiences haven't generally responded to this form of suspense. ("Chess is a great game, but that doesn't mean I want to watch it on television," a friend told me during the past month.) And it is true that of the 62 World Cup matches, 58 have been won by the team scoring first. In 35 previous World Cup matches, Brazil had never lost when leading at the half -- until the Netherlands scored two in the second half to beat it.
So comes Sunday. For all its talent and firepower, Spain strangles its opponent like a boa, perfectly content to win 1-0, as it has in its past three matches. A more wide-open game might appeal to more viewers, but there is tension in the Spanish style, especially in a matchup against a Netherlands side that has shown a propensity to be leaky in its defensive middle.
In the end, American fans should be empowered by a painful, heroic run on the big stage by our own national team. That should keep us watching today and into the future with an eye on the European leagues, where the stars of this Cup (Lionel Messi, Van Persie, Ronaldo and Diego Forlan) have their day jobs. The tournament will come to a rousing end on Sunday, the American audience treated to two driven, hot teams that earned their place in the final after decades of frustration.
A first-time champion is coming, hopefully before penalty kicks.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
Fans of Spain and the Netherlands have had plenty to cheer so far, with more to come on Sunday. But this World Cup final has captured our imaginations, too. Who'd have thunk it?