Netherlands and Spain to play World Cup final

A re-cap of the semi-finals before Sunday's big game

The Netherlands 3 – Uruguay 2
Tuesday, July 6

While the Uruguayans entered the semi-final as the underdogs—following their, shall we say, “controversial” victory over Ghana—it was the South American side who came in with the more impressive World Cup pedigree, having hoisted the trophy twice previously, in 1930 and 1950. The Dutch, on the other hand, were battling to overcome their reputation as under-achievers, having been an international soccer power for decades (and reaching the final twice, in 1974 and 1978) but never finishing the job at the World Cup.

The weight of history was heavy on the shoulders of both teams as the game began, with a cagey and controlled first 15 minutes. But in the 18th minute, Dutch captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst relieved some of the pressure with his left foot, unleashing a wicked diagonal shot from 25 yards out that found the top corner of the Uruguayan goal.

Showing that he wouldn’t be one-upped, Diego Forlan—wearing the captain’s armband—returned the favour in the 41st minute, cracking a left-footed bomb from 25 yards that wobbled in the air and eluded Maarten Stekelenburg’s outstretched fingertips. Though the Dutch controlled the majority of ball possession in the first half, the game went into halftime tied at one goal apiece.

The second half started much like the first, with few definitive offensive chances for either side, as Uruguay worked hard to shut down any Dutch breaks before they could begin. Forlan had the first good chance of the half, bending a free kick over the defensive wall in the 67th minute, forcing a diving save from Stekelenburg. The Netherlands came back quickly, with Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera sprawling to stop a shot from Dutch substitute Rafael van der Vaart a minute later.

But the breakthrough came for the Oranje in the 70th minute—Wesley Sneijder was rewarded for his strong play through the tournament when his harmless-looking right-footed shot bounced off of a Uruguayan defender and found the corner of the net. The Netherlands seemed to kill the game off three minutes later, when a cross from Dirk Kuyt found Arjen Robben, who headed it into Muslera’s goal.

Uruguay ensured a fascinating finish when Maxi Pereira received a free kick inside the Dutch penalty area and slid the ball past Stekelenburg in the second minute of stoppage time—but the Netherlands managed to withstand a few final minutes of frantic pressure to preserve the win. A valiant effort from the undermanned and outgunned Uruguayans, but it would be the Netherlands marching on, hoping that their third time in the World Cup final would, indeed, be the charm.

Spain 1 – Germany 0
Wednesday, July 7

In this rematch of the final of the 2008 European championship, both teams made a big change to their starting lineup—one by choice, one for tactical reasons. With 20-year-old breakout star Thomas Muller missing the game due to a suspension, Miroslav Klose started as Germany’s lone striker. On the other side, an under-performing Fernando Torres rode the bench to start the game, replaced in the starting 11 by Pedro Rodriguez.

The showcase game got off to an odd start, with security needing to subdue a surely over-refreshed audience member who’d run out onto the pitch in the 4th minute. The actual soccer began two minutes later, when Pedro found David Villa with an incisive pass into the German area, forcing a save from Manuel Neuer. The Spaniards’ next chance came in the 14th, when Andres Iniesta whipped in a cross from the right side, which was headed over the bar by Carlos Puyol.

Germany struggled to find any sort of rhythm, as Spain dominated the game with its trademark crisp passing and strong ball control. Xabi Alonso had a go at goal from 30 yards out in the 30th minute, but put his shot just wide. Piotr Trochowski took a similar shot at the other end two minutes later, but also directed the ball several feet wide of the mark. In first-half stoppage time, the Germans appealed for a penalty kick when Mesut Ozil collided with Sergio Ramos as he approached the Spanish goal, but the referee wasn’t interested.

Coming out of halftime, Spain picked up where they’d left off, with Alonso sending another long-range effort just wide of Neuer’s goal in the 50th minute. Pedro cracked a shot of this own three minutes later, but Neuer sprawled to parry it away. Ramos then appealed for a penalty kick of his own in the 61st minute after colliding with Lukas Podolski inside the German area—but again, the referee signaled for play to continue.

With the game reaching its latter stages, German substitute Toni Kroos almost bagged a goal against the run of play, striking a volley from inside the Spanish penalty area—but captain Iker Casillas was there to make a diving save. Finally the Spanish possession and pressure culminated with the vital goal in the 73rd minute, when Xavi sent in a corner kick that Puyol firmly headed into the back of the net.

Germany’s vaunted offence had no answer in the final 20 minutes, as the game finished with the same scoreline as the final of Euro 2008: Spain 1, Germany 0. Heartbreak for the Germans—but for the Spaniards, a first-ever shot at hoisting the World Cup trophy, and confirmation that, one way or another, the soccer world will see a new champion in 2010.

Daniel Squizzato writes for Some Canadian Guys Writing About Soccer, which takes a passionate (and often irreverent) look at the Canadian soccer scene, major international tournaments and all sorts of odds and ends related to the beautiful game.