x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

So near and yet so far from that World Cup final glory

Spain and Holland top the line-up, but they are not alone in having a history of frustration in the World Cup. One comes off the list tomorrow.

Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo is dejected after a semi-final loss to France in 2006.
Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo is dejected after a semi-final loss to France in 2006.

JOHANNESBURG // For the first time since France's 1998 triumph, a completely new owner is about to win the World Cup. Only seven nations have won the big event, and Brazil, Italy, Argentina and Germany have dominated the tournament's history, winning 14 of the 18 previous competitions, including 11 of the past 13.

But the all-European final between Holland and Spain tomorrow will see either the Oranje, or La Furia Roja, both perennial underachievers in the competition, belatedly seal the World Cup deal. It is Spain's first final appearance - a debut chance to rule the world. Holland, on the other hand, experienced consecutive last-hurdle failures in the 1970s, and Soccer City presents Holland its third championship chance.

Amazingly, Africa's first World Cup final marks the first time that Holland and Spain have met competitively. The prize could not be any bigger. The victors are the champions of the world. For the vanquished side, however, defeat will simply prolong the untenable barren era. Solace, though, perhaps lies in knowing that other great football nations have also missed on World Cup glory. Spain and Holland are in good company.

After decades of World Cup woe, a place in this year's final was the minimum requirement for Europe's reigning champions. Vicente del Bosque, the national team coach who took over the team following the Euro triumph by Luis Aragones two years ago, has wisely not elected to overhaul his predecessor's winning formula. Seven of Spain's first XI in the semi-final ply their weekly trades for Barcelona, the La Liga champions, and the familiarity and kinship has bred unrivalled on-field chemistry.

But it has not always been plain sailing for Spain and, a lone 1950 semi-final appearance aside, they have struggled on this stage. Luck, as much a necessity as form in the pursuit of football success, has not always been in the Iberians' locker. The Spanish were in hot form as recently as 2002. In scoring nine goals in three group games, Spain won their group and set up a last 16 clash with Ireland, winning on penalties. But two disallowed Spain goals, the second of which was an inexplicable officiating error, saw South Korea eliminate the star-studded Europeans on penalties at the quarter-finals.

This year marks the 105th anniversary of Holland's first international fixture - a 4-1 away victory over neighbours Belgium in Antwerp. The national trophy cabinet, however, is notably barren. Holland have been Europe's guardians of aesthetically pleasing football since the success of the 1970s team - a unit that gave "Total Football" to the world and the side was nicknamed "Clockwork Orange" for their precision passing.

But consecutive World Cup final defeats in 1974 and 1978 confirmed that Oranje side, captained by Johan Cruyff, as one of football's most acclaimed band of underachievers. The Cruyff saga of 1978, when he refused to play, also set the precedent for ritual outbreaks of disharmony at Dutch World Cup camps. Holland, put simply, have often been their own worst enemy. Even the victorious Euro '88 squad, with luminaries such as Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman and the prolific Marco van Basten, could not end the World Cup drought. Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and co can secure redemption.

Before Cruyff, Hungary's Magical Magyars of the 1950s revolutionised the post-World War II era by laying the tactical fundamentals of Total Football. Built around Ferenc Puskas, the legendary Real Madrid forward; Sandor Kocsis; attacking half-back Jozsef Bozsik; and withdrawn striker Nandor Hidegkuti, Hungary presented a potent quartet of attackers who dominated international football for six years, from 1950 through 1956.

As the 1952 Olympic champions, Hungary were one of the hot favourites for World Cup success two years later. It was not to be. Despite defeating the West German hosts 8-3 earlier in the competition, Hungary lost 3-2 in what Germans recall as "The Miracle of Bern". Hungary had led 2-0. As a World Cup contender, they never recovered.

Constant producers of world-class players they may be, but Portugal remain spectacular World Cup underachievers. Eusebio scored eight goals to light up England's 1966 tournament, but even the Black Pearl could not stop Portugal's semi-final exit to the hosts. It was 20 years before Portugal would even qualify again. Regular qualifiers since 2002, Portugal's systematic failure to deliver has continued. Under 20 World Cup victories in 1989 and 1991 should have seen players such as Luis Figo, Vitor Baia, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto and Joao Pinto battling for the game's highest senior honour. But the talented crop did not step up and the present generation seem intent on repeating the trick.

After smashing England 3-0 in the 2006 quarter-finals, an insipid Portugal lost 1-0 to France in the semi-finals. After a turbulent qualification, the likes of Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Simao, and Cristiano Ronaldo earned another chance in South Africa, but they could not find a way past Spain and left the tournament at the last 16.

In 11 World Cup appearances, Sweden, who did not qualify for South Africa, have finished second once, in 1958, and third twice, in 1950 and 1994. Hardly spectacular, but a decent record nonetheless. Brazil, naturally, were the team that halted the Swedes' World Cup dreams at their own 1958 tournament; a 5-2 final defeat. With Tomas Brolin, Martin Dahlin and Kennet Andersson pulling the strings at USA '94, Sweden finished behind Brazil- the sides drew 1-1 - in the group stages to set up a last 16 encounter with Saudi Arabia. A 3-1 victory was followed by a penalty shoot-out triumph over the much-fancied Romanians, before a Brazil rematch saw the deadly Romario send Sweden packing in the semis.

A 4-0 drubbing of Bulgaria in the third-place match, which included a sterling diving header by a young striker named Henrik Larsson, cemented the side's credentials as genuine contenders. emegson@thenational.ae