Johannesburg: The big-name players have fallen by the wayside, leaving the Netherlands and Spain, tactically, technically and temperamentally the teams of the tournament, to face off in a World Cup final that should be one for the soccer cognoscenti.
It is entirely fitting that Sunday’s climax to a tournament that has seen Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and co fail to live up to their stratospheric reputations should showcase the value of teamwork over individual brilliance.
Spain, inching their way back to the levels of technical perfection that took them to victory at Euro 2008, will start as slim favourites at Soccer City in their first World Cup final.
Even Paul the Octopus, the tentacled tipster who has provided the great silly story of this World Cup by correctly predicting all Germany’s results, is pointing to a win for the Furia Roja (Red Fury).
“The important thing is that we keep our calm and maintain our spirit,” coach Vicente del Bosque told reporters. “We know that’s the road to follow.”
Whatever happens, we will have a first-time World Cup winner at the first tournament in Africa, with the Dutch playing their third final after defeats in 1974 and 1978.
It will also be a first World Cup win for a European side playing on another continent.
Bert van Marwijk’s team, who have exuded an air of harmony and commitment in contrast to previous Dutch sides that have possessed at least as much talent but also a reputation for internal squabbling, have persuasive arguments that it will be third time lucky for the Oranje.
In Wesley Sneijder they possess one of the few creative midfielders who can match Spain’s Xavi and Andres Iniesta for skill and the ability to influence a match and they have a front four with the gifts to give the Spanish defence their first real test.
The two teams have a similar commitment to keeping the ball -- hardly a surprise given that this Spain team is built on the Barcelona model, which in turn has had a major Dutch influence since the days of Johan Cruyff who coached the Spanish club.
The game may turn on which side can find the more ruthless touch in front of goal.
With Fernando Torres still lacking his customary touch -- he was dropped for the semi-final against Germany and came on as a late sub -- Spain’s problem all tournament has been in scoring goals.
They have managed just seven in total in their six matches to date, five of them from David Villa, and they are likely to line up again with Pedro alongside their customary match winner, with Torres on the bench.
The Dutch have found scoring goals easier, 12 in all, but they have found it tough to finish off their opponents.
After falling behind against Brazil they came back to dominate the match and could have put much more of a gloss on what turned out to be a nervy 2-1 win.
It was the same story against Uruguay in the semi-finals -- 3-1 up they had two clear chances to put the result beyond doubt before the South Americans pulled one back to make it a very nervous finale.
“We’ve won six straight games and had some phases of good football but we’ve also been sloppy in finishing,” Bert van Marwijk told reporters. “Spain have been less sloppy in that.”
The Dutch, arguably the best team never to have won a World Cup, will be relieved not to be facing the host nation in their third final, after losing to Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978.
It is their bad luck to be up against a Spain team who seem able to play with the same confidence and panache no matter how far they are away from home.