JOHANNESBURG - The suits running FIFA are crossing their well-manicured fingers that frail South African icon Nelson Mandela will be healthy enough to hand over the World Cup trophy Sunday at the sporting jewel known as Soccer City.
Whether Mandela is able to attend remains up in the air.
Whomever is on hand to make the presentation, it says here that it likely will be Spanish captain Iker Casillas who will be be waiting, hands reaching out, to accepted soccer’s ultimate prize when all is said and done.
That’s not to predict it’s a sure thing. Far from it.
The Dutch have been the most successful team in this 32-tournament to date, grinding through the opposition en route to posting the only unblemished record - 6-0 - at South Africa 2010. In the process, Wesley Sneijder arguably has been the best player in this World Cup, with the likes of Arjen Robben and Marc Van Bommel headlining a wonderful supporting cast.
Cheering them on throughout the past month have been their unbelievably loyal fans who make up the Orange Nation, perhaps the most outstanding group of supporters we’ve seen here.
Having said that, the Spanish came into The Big Dance as the most talented team. With one game remaining, they still are.
If they lose, it likely will be because the Dutch, while only slightly less skilled, play better as a team. That’s a possibility, to be sure.
Still, the pick here remains Spain. It’s just an opinion, sure. But here’s the foundation it is based on.
10. IKER CASILLAS: The Spanish goalkeeper has not been beaten since the group stage ended, blanking the opposition for the past 300-plus minutes. Casillas comes into the game with 110 caps. His Dutch counterpart, Maarten Stekelenburg, has just 32. Who would you pick?
9. THE NADAL FACTOR: In 2008, just several weeks after Spanish phenom Rafael Nadal captured his first Wimbledon title, Spain won Euro 2008. Last weekend, Nadal captured his second Wimbledon crown, setting the table for Spain to claim victory in another international tournament, this time the World Cup. To that end, the Spanish star plans to be on hand for the final at Soccer City. “I am in contact with the players. I just wish the team all the best,” Nadal said on his web site.
8. THE BARCA BULLDOGS: Remember back at the Vancouver Olympics, when the familiarity of the defence pairings -- the Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, plus former Ducks partners Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger -- helped Canada to a gold medal? Consider that Spain’s two pillars at the back end -- Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol -- anchor Barcelona’s defence. If it worked for Canada, then ...
7. THE MARVELLOUS MIDFIELD: Admittedly, a Dutch midfield that includes Marc Van Bommel, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben is among the top two in the world. But the way Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos pass back and forth as if they are in the school yard, they are the pick to be the best.
6. WINNING BREEDS WINNING: The Spanish ended a 44-year drought in international tournaments by coming out on top at Euro 2008, stripping them of their labels as underachievers and chokers. They finally proved to the world that they know how to win The Big One. The jury remains out on the Dutch when it comes to such things.
5. DAVID VILLA: He scored the only goal in a Group of 16 victory over rival Portugal. He scored the only goal in a dramatic 1-0 quarterfinal triumph over Paraguay. The man has a flair for the dramatic. And it doesn’t get any more dramatic than this.
4. BECAUSE PAUL SAYS SO: From his swank aquarium in Germany, the world’s most prognosticating octupus was perfect in his first six picks of the tournament, going 6-0. Now, with the eyes of the sporting world on Soccer City Sunday, he has selected Spain as the winner. Who are we to argue?
3. IT’S OUR BALL AND YOU CAN’T HAVE IT: At one point late in the first half in the 1-0 semifinal victory against the Germans, the Spanish had compiled an overwhelming possession rate of 70%. How is the other team supposed to score if it doesn’t have the ball?
2. THESE GUYS ARE GOOD: If you have any doubt that the Spanish have the most talented team in the world, just look at some of the names who were collecting splinters in their rumps while sitting on the bench during the team’s 1-0 semifinal victory over Germany. Fernando Torres. David Silva. Cesc Fabregas. Raul Albiol. These guys wouldn’t just be starting for any other team; they’d be stars on any other team.
1. PICK OF THE LITTER: In the pre-tournament World Cup supplement put out by the QMI Agency, yours truly picked Spain to win it all. (Over Brazil, if you want to get picky, but there’s no reason to bring that up). If it should work out that way, just use the label “soccer genius.” If the Dutch win, well, the emails from all those wonderful Dutch fans likely will start out with: “We told you so, #@$%^*&!” Either way, after sinking or swimming with the Spanish since the tournament kicked off June 11, this is no time to bail out.