Prepare Yourself for the World Cup Finals

The last match of World Cup 2010 is upon us. On Sunday at 2:30 p.m. eastern time, Spain and the Netherlands, arguably the two nations with the most tortured World Cup histories, will battle to become just the eighth champion of the world’s biggest sporting event. The global television audience should number about a billion. (In fact, all data on media coverage of the event is both awesome and terrifying.) Both teams are heirs to some serious history.

The radical Dutch teams of the 1970s blew the soccer world’s collective mind, but lost two finals. Spain is the soccer equivalent of the Chicago Cubs—an elegant icon of the game, yet more closely associated with epic meltdowns than triumph. This time, Spain is the flashy favorite that has yet to find its best form. The Dutch are now cast as gritty, sometimes ruthless, sometimes thrilling professionals—a gang of aging hard-cases, pulled together to do one last job, plus a couple crafty assassins in their prime.

Clearly, there’s a lot to learn. With the soccer blogosphere at full maturity and the traditional media revved up to suck every last eyeball or pageview out of the event, this World Cup has seen an amazing profusion of sharp (or not-so-sharp) commentary. So, if you’re looking to get schooled fast in the many subtleties of this Sunday’s huge game, consider this a haphazard (but fun) place to start.

If you actually want to understand what these two teams are trying to do when they take the field, check out Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Wilson. In his analysis of Spain, he looks at what makes the country’s signature “tiki-taka” style of short passes and relentless movement so effective—and, occasionally, so annoying. His look at the Netherlands diagnoses how this team became the only unbeaten, untied team in this World Cup (so far) by ratcheting down up its defense and whipping forward deadly counterattacks. American game reports seldom provide this kind of insight into the complicated inner workings of soccer, and a little tactical understanding goes a long way to making the game more intelligible and entertaining to watch.

There has probably never been a more formidable assembly of American soccer nerd-dom than The New Republic’s Goal Post blog. Franklin Foer wrote the well-received book How Soccer Explains the World. The novelist (and soccer fanatic) Aleksandar Hemon is, well, merely a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. The all-star roster continues from there. On the final’s eve, the best Goal Post work touches on both teams. Stefan Fatsis examines the historic tension between the Netherlands’ artsy soccer tradition and the current team’s perceived git ’er done pragmatism. Foer looks at how much Spain relies on players from linguistically, culturally, and politically distinct Catalonia. Eve Fairbanks checks in with a short-but-amusing report on how quickly South Africans jumped on the Dutch bandwagon. Tracking back a game or two, you’ve got to read Hemon’s vituperative take on Argentina’s legendary (but not for being a coach) coach Diego Maradona. Beyond its own writers, the Goal Post overflows with good links.

But if you really want an embarrassment of riches, check out Pitch Invasion. This Chicago-based uber-blog’s World Cup coverage frankly overwhelmed my Google Reader; there were weeks when I just gave up. But lately, it’s mandatory reading. From hard-hitting commentary on backstage FIFA shenanigans to deep-dive coverage of the event’s cultural impact with South Africa, Pitch Invasion generally offers a politically aware and engaged take on this absurdly huge entertainment spectacle.

Run of Play—largely, but not exclusively, the work of Slate contributor Brian Phillips—has a more cerebral thing going on. In fact, I have been known to read a Run of Play piece, quietly close my laptop, and take a meditative walk around the block as I consider another line of work. Mostly, though, RoP serves as my go-to source for provocative, even avant-garde analysis and probing questions. Should you really root for underdogs? Why did that now-infamous Uruguayan handball prompt such a moral panic? And will any of this mean anything in 10 years?

Run of Play can serve as an introduction to the brainy soccer blogosphere—a thriving crowd, and kind of a tough one, too. The Indian writer Supriya Nair recently sliced up a New York Times columnist on her superbly named Treasons, Stratagems & Spoils. The politically minded From A Left Wing contributed my favorite comparative analysis of the tournament: the World Cup as Moby Dick. (Maradona is Captain Ahab.) And for those who are new to soccer thanks to this World Cup, 200 Percent combines great analysis of the tournament with reminders that there is far, far more to the sport, finding time amid the action in South Africa to cover minor-division clubs in England.

If you really want to give this thing the old college try by smashing an unfeasible reading binge into a caffeine-fuelled, last-hours frenzy, I have two books to recommend. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football will let you in on the intricate cultural history behind The Netherlands’s team—specifically, how life in a tiny, largely man-made country gave Dutch players a unique understanding of space and a democratic, cooperative ethic. To delve into the Spanish game, I recommend cherry-picking from David Goldblatt’s monumental world soccer history The Ball is Round.

The Ball is Round is about all soccer, in all countries. But Goldblatt is particularly intriguing on the subject of the endless rivalry between Spain’s two biggest clubs, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. During the Franco dictatorship, Real Madrid ruled European soccer, while Barcelona served as pretty much the only legal expression of Catalan identity. The latter then redefined the Spanish game when it hooked up with Dutch (twist!) superstar Johan Cruyff. Today, these two giant clubs—think Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, respectively—are still the polar opposites of Spanish soccer. Together, they will supply almost all of Spain’s starting line-up on Sunday.

Weird, right? That’s soccer for you. Now get going—you’ve got a lot of reading to do before Sunday.

Photos by Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images (the Netherlands) and Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images (Spain.)

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