Michael Church

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 July, 2010, 12:00am

A new era has begun. With Germany's elimination at the hands of Spain, Sunday's final will be devoid of one factor that has unified all of the tournament's showpiece games. Each of the previous 17 finals - in 1950 the trophy was decided in a three-team round-robin contest won by Uruguay - have featured the tournament's big four: at least one of Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Italy have appeared in every title decider since the World Cup started in 1930.

All but four of the preceding 18 world championships have been shared around the quartet, with Brazil claiming five, Italy four, Germany three and two going to Argentina. But this time a new name will sit among the pantheon of winners.

It is the absence, though, of one of the competition's more successful nations that comes as something of a surprise at a World Cup that was once seen as South America's to lose, but which will now be on its way to Europe. With 90 minutes remaining of South Africa 2010, that is one of the few certainties that exists.

Of the hallowed quartet, all but Italy made it to the business end of the competition. Marcello Lippi's side were little short of woeful despite their status as champions and deserved to have time called on their defence at such an early stage. The elimination of both Brazil and Argentina in the last eight, however, meant the chances of the old guard maintaining their record rested on the shoulders of Joachim Low's young German team.

For a side who have provided much of what has been positive at this year's tournament thanks to their counterattacking fluency, victory over European champions Spain proved beyond them; the heavy weight of history - and the loss through suspension of the inspirational Thomas Muller - turned out to be too much to overcome. The Germans, though, will have their time again and they will no doubt be installed among the favourites for the 2012 edition of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.

Now the Dutch will go head to head with Spain at the stadium fashioned in the style of a traditional African cooking pot on the edge of Soweto. It promises to be an interesting concoction of a stew. The styles of the two teams are radically different and the individuals who personify the manner in which each side goes about its business play the game in a contrasting way.

For the Spanish, Xavi Hernandez is the heart and soul of Vicente del Bosque's team. Just as he does at Barcelona, the 30-year-old strokes the ball around with ease on the biggest stage, completing passes with the regularity of a metronome. The Catalan midfielder has tasted much success at club level while also serving as an integral part of the Spanish side who ended the nation's years of underachievement when they claimed the European title two years ago. To his name he has five Spanish league titles, two European Cups, and a whole host of other honours. Victory on Sunday, though, would put even those remarkable achievements in the shade.

The temptation is to compare or contrast Xavi with the Netherlands' most potent attacking threat. But while Wesley Sneijder will always take the majority of headlines, the real reason for the success of the Dutch lies further back in midfield. Mark van Bommel does little to win friends; the Bayern Munich man is the kind of player fans of other teams love to loathe.

Even the Dutch, who pride themselves on the aesthetic values associated with Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels and the Total Football years of the 1970s, cringe when the 33-year-old throws himself into another tackle or whines and moans to the referee. But then, Van Bommel's aim on the pitch is not to increase his popularity; it is to win and that is something he has repeatedly done throughout his career. He has claimed eight league crowns in Holland, Spain and Germany, as well the European Cup with Barcelona in 2006. Van Bommel's niggling manner may not be easy on the eye - or the ears of those around him - but it is productive.

The Spanish, and Xavi in particular, will know only too well the impact Van Bommel can have on his team and on the game in general. The continental title he won with Barcelona came during his sole season at the Camp Nou, during which he played alongside Xavi, although the Catalan midfielder missed much of the campaign after damaging ligaments in his knee. That season also yielded a Spanish league title before van Bommel was on the road again, this time joining Bayern as he continued a trophy-collecting career in Germany that saw him win this year's Bundesliga as well as play in the final of the Uefa Champions League.

International success, however, has eluded a player who has a chequered history with the Oranje. Not every coach in charge of the team has appreciated Van Bommel's value in the same manner as his father-in-law, Bert van Marwijk. But if the Dutch emerge with the trophy in their clutches on Sunday night, few apologies will be made for the manner in which it has been won. And Van Bommel will have succeeded where even the legendary Cruyff fell short.