The 2006 World Cup final left behind very little except for the headbutt. Zinedine Zidane’s baffling last act as a player overshadowed the result, and a penalty-kick winner always feels like a co-champion, not a conqueror. In any case, Italy was a weak champion. Oh, a tough, clever, talented side, no doubt—but no one really wanted to play like them. With just about everyone playing in Serie A, they did not have a style or philosophy to export. The squad went stale almost instantaneously, and by Euro 2008, it was obvious that the Italian moment was just a moment. The next great Italian side, Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, fields very few actual Italians.
Instead of inaugurating an era, the 2006 final ended one: the Zidane/Ronaldo Era, in which the French midfield genius and the mercurial Brazilian forward defined, between them, three consecutive World Cups. One of the questions hovering over today’s meeting between Spain and the Netherlands is whether the result will crown an era or feel like just a bit of an accident.
If Spain wins, then we will be experiencing the Era of Tiki-Taka, the short-passing, possession-oriented style that la Furia used to win the 2008 Euros and that, with minor variations, Barcelona used to win everything they contested in 2009. (The Spanish national team is basically just a subset of Barcelona at this point.) It may not be as radical or have a cool name like Total Football, and I don’t know if it has the spooky cultural relevance of catenaccio. But tiki-taka is definitely an idea about how to play, a comprehensive concept about how to win a match. As some critics point out, it has its conservative side; all that possession and restless geometric dicing of the midfield sometimes means that not much happens around the goal mouth. Not everyone can play this way—it takes a seamless midfield on the order of Xavi/Iniesta/Busquets. But Spanish victory would seal tiki-taka as the state of the art, for now.
This takes nothing away from The Netherlands, but these Dutch are a much more makeshift and scrappy side. If Spain is a crisp-lined modernist house with net-zero carbon impact, this version of the Oranje is a sprawling, weather-beaten compound littered with mismatched machinery, where the residents shave their heads and brew their own biodiesel. They tackle hard and create from there. Their goals come on guerrilla raids or rude little set pieces. The Dutch are improvisers and opportunists, and they get lucky too often for it to count as luck.
Another way to look at, perhaps: football is a game of control, but also of incident. Spain is the team of control. Holland is the team of incident. Usually involving Van Bommel.
I should note that I like watching teams like The Netherlands. The progressive-peacenik-social-democrat segment of my being would naturally like to see a team of thinkers—Spain, in this case—win. But there’s another part of me that digs the piratical smash-and-grab operation the Dutch have going. A Dutch win would be a self-contained coup, One Last Big Job for a lot of their aging safe-crackers and gunsels.
Era, or accident? In five hours, we’ll find out.