Back in the fall of 2007, 204 countries from Brazil to Montserrat set out on the long road to the 2010 World Cup. On and off, for three grueling years, they played through endless qualifying rounds, slowly casting off the weak. Game by game, they trudged closer to South Africa. Then, 32 of them made it, earning the privilege to have the world dissect their every move and share in their every defeat. All to have a shot at entering soccer's most exclusive club: the tiny circle of World Cup winners.
Why are there so few countries at the top rung of the game when the entire world is playing it?
Spain vs Uruguay
It's a club that only has seven members, slowly expanded over 18 tournaments. Uruguay, a geopolitically insignificant bit of South America, became its charter member when it won the inaugural World Cup in 1930 on its home soil. (Much of that success was due to the fact that the European teams arrived exhausted after a three-week-long boat trip.) Now, ahead of today's final between the Netherlands and Spain, Brazil is chairman of the board with five World Cup wins under its belt, followed by Italy (four), Germany (three), Argentina (two), Uruguay (two), England (one), and France (one).
Which means that no matter what happens in Johannesburg this afternoon, the magnificent seven are about to grudgingly welcome a new member—a rare and monumental moment in a span of 80 years. For all their pedigree, neither the Dutch nor the Spanish have ever won the World Cup. The Netherlands have come close, losing in successive finals in the 1970s. Spain had never even been to a semi-final until last Wednesday.
Germany vs Uruguay
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• Full coverage of the World CupBut even once the club expands to eight countries, its complexion will hardly be altered. It will still contain three South American countries and five Western European countries. No nation from any of the other four continents has even threatened to win the World Cup. Why are there so few countries at the top rung of the game when the entire world is playing it?
One simple answer is that the seven winners have all had association football—meaning a comprehensive system of leagues and a national governing body—for roughly a century. That begins to set them apart. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski offer further explanation for the way the group has maintained the same profile in their 2009 book, Soccernomics. They argue that in the grand scheme of things, those nations are culturally quite close and fairly affluent. And since all their players wind up plying their trade in the same European leagues, where fans have the money to support big stadiums and bigger contracts, the way they and their countries play soccer has grown in a uniform way.
Uruguay vs Ghana
Yet, until now, Spain and the Netherlands have been left behind every four years. Still, the fact that they don't have a crown between them doesn't mean the final isn't a tantalizing matchup of soccer royalty. Actually, it's a matchup of plain-old European royalty, too—Spain's ruling House of Bourbon versus the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau—though that probably won't come up much.
Brazil Knocked Out of the World Cup
In Spain, a World Cup victory would be treated as a divine right, its long-awaited ascent to the summit of the game. But what's taken it so long? Kuper and Szymanski write that, "Countries separated from the core of the EU—either by distance, great poverty, or by closed borders under dictatorships—often underperform in soccer."
England vs Germany—Second German Goal
Does that mean Spain has General Franco to blame? Well, yes, actually. It wasn't until the early 1970s, as Franco's chokehold on the country loosened and Spain grew slowly richer, that the rest of Europe began infusing Spanish soccer. And, ironically enough, much of Spain's modern soccer tradition can be traced back to a Dutchman: the legendary Johan Cruyff. When he arrived at F.C. Barcelona in 1973, his Amsterdam-grown style changed the way the Spanish played soccer. His game proved that teams of brilliant individuals don't necessarily turn into sides full of ball-hogs. And the legacy of his constant movement and technical wizardry is plainly apparent in Spain's death-by-a-thousand-passes approach. So much so that Cruyff can't help but pick against his home country in the final. (Unless, of course, he is just refusing to go against Paul, the psychic German octopus, who predicted a Spanish triumph.)
"Who am I supporting?" he wrote in El Periodico de Catalunya Thursday. "I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing."
USA vs England
At times during this tournament, the Spanish game has been a little too close for comfort, though reliably beautiful. Spain has won its last three games by keeping the ball and settling for the slim margin of 1-0. The Dutch, whose biggest scalp at this World Cup was Brazil, have been just as efficient, if not as attractive. And this despite carrying just as much baggage. The Dutch are burdened with the fear that Die Oranje's golden age has already come and gone without leaving a World Cup behind.
As early as the 1960s, clubs like Ajax Amsterdam began developing new approaches to the game. In what became known as "Total Football," they exploded the traditional idea of positions. Anyone could play at virtually any position on the field at any given time, as long as they had someone covering them, because the players were technically drilled enough to do that. It made for a stunning, free-flowing style that embraced all kinds of creativity. It made the style that Cruyff would later export to Spain.
USA vs Ghana
That early generation of Total Footballers, led by Cruyff, grew into the inimitable Netherlands team of the 1970s. It made the final of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, only to lose out to West Germany and Argentina, respectively. Thirty years later, the Dutch have a chance to banish those ghosts.
"This is a historic event, a unique opportunity for us all," Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta told reporters this week, unwittingly speaking for the Dutch camp, too. "It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up just thinking about it."
Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.