Dutch final thoughts still linger with past masters

IT was the morning after the night before and Amsterdam had an almighty hangover.

Holland, courtesy of the previous evening's 3-2 victory over Uruguay, had booked their first World Cup final appearance in a generation and the Dutch capital had clearly staged one hell of a party.

Strolling up towards Dam Square from Centraal Station, the remnants of the celebrations were clear for all to see. Bleary eyes and heavy heads were apparent among the sea of smiling faces as the city basked in the memory of what had undoubtedly been a long night.

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On talking to a few of those locals later in the day, it transpired 60,000 fans had packed into Museum Square to watch the game on what organisers had described as "the biggest television screen in Europe". Elsewhere in the city, the bars had been full of expectant fans a couple of hours before kick-off so it was understandable that the celebrations should have gone on well into the small hours.

What also became evident, however, as the day progressed was that, for a surprisingly sizeable number, some of the gloss had been taken off reaching the final by the style employed by Holland coach Bert van Marwijk.

Adopting such a pragmatic approach was, according to those old enough to recall the 'Total Football' era of the Seventies, not a price worth paying. It was, quite simply, not the Dutch way to play without flair, adopting a conservative formation featuring two holding midfielders and just one striker.

To an Englishman weary of watching his own country's struggles on the biggest footballing stage, it seemed an unusually churlish attitude and one that I suspected owed a lot to feeling a tad rough after over-doing the previous night's celebrations.

Van Marwijk, right, had, to this outsider, clearly recognised that the class of 2010 did not possess the quality of previous generations and set up his team accordingly – and had been successful.

On the return trip home, however, I reflected on what had been said and started to realise that maybe the gripes of the locals in Amsterdam were not necessarily just a mixture of romanticising about the good old days and enjoying one too many lagers on Tuesday night. And that, in fact, what had been at the heart of the mutterings was dissatisfaction with the 2010 World Cup as a tournament.

Certainly, it seems that the past month in South Africa is unlikely to be looked back on with any particular fondness.

Staid matches, coaches with defensive mentalities and a host of big-name players failing to make the expected impact, this World Cup has been the dullest since 1990 – a finals where leniency towards dirty play allowed the more negative teams to prosper.

There have, of course, been a few highlights. Spectacular goals have been scored by the likes of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Carlos Tevez and Keisuke Honda, and the frantic finale between Ghana and Uruguay was great entertainment.

Germany's play was also a joy to watch, as was the spectacular implosion of the Brazilians in the closing stages of their quarter-final exit.

But, on the whole, this has been a disappointing tournament that, with just the final and third place play-off to come, is yet to take off and capture the imagination.

Even Switzerland's shock win over Spain in the first round of group games had the gloss subsequently taken off it by the victors failing to reach the knockout stage as Vicente del Bosque's side went through.

Spain's struggles – at least until finally getting back to something like their best in the semi-final triumph over Germany – is an indication of just how the 2010 World Cup has failed to match the hype.

Following the stunning success that was Euro 2008 and Barcelona's standing as Europe's favourite club side, much was expected of the Spanish this year.

Not only that, but with so many of del Bosque's players being from the Catalan club – seven were in the line-up that faced Germany, alongside three from Real Madrid – it was also hoped they could bring to the finals the same mesmerising style of play that has made the Nou Camp the place to be for those who love their football with a flamboyant flavour.

Three 1-0 victories in the knockout stage suggests this has not been the case, though del Bosque can at least point to his team being in the final.

The game itself is an intriguing affair between the nearly men of world football – Holland's two final appearances and a fourth place finish for Spain being a poor return for the talent that both have boasted down the years.

Tomorrow will, of course, see one of them shake off that tag forever as the World Cup gets a new winner.

Whether it is Spain or Holland could be decided by how good a game Xavi or Wesley Sneijder have, or if Joan Capdevila, the only non Barcelona/Real player involved in the semi-final win over Germany, can subdue Arjen Robben.

It could, simply, be decided how best suited the safe hands of two-time Champions League winner del Bosque are to a final compared to the more regimented and uncharismatic approach of van Marwijk

Either way, it is to be hoped that a meeting between two footballing nations with impeccable footballing pedigrees finally gives the 2010 World Cup a game to savour.