WORLD CUP 2010: CAPTAIN CASILLAS ADMITS SPANISH NERVES
Is this the end of Spain's World Cup pain?
Spain captain Iker Casillas has admitted they have been suffering from nerves throughout the World Cup finals.
The European champions face the Netherlands in Sunday's final at Soccer City despite not always having been at their brilliant best in South Africa.
“We've felt a bit anxious all the way through the tournament, even the early matches,” said the Real Madrid keeper.
“This is a very important match – the most important of our careers – and we do feel nervous.”
Spain went into the tournament as favourites to win their first ever World Cup, but lost to Switzerland in their opening group game, before recovering to qualify for the knockout stages as Group H winners.
However, the European champions have still to find their top form and each of their wins against Portugal, Paraguay and Germany in the knockout rounds have come by a single goal.
In contrast, the Netherlands have scored two or more goals against Slovakia, Brazil and Uruguay in the knockout stages to extend their winning streak to 14 matches ahead of what many saw as an unlikely final appearance.
While the Dutch side lacks the flair of some of it's predecessors – most notably the Total Football side of the 1970s, who were twice losing World Cup finalists – current coach Bert van Marwijk is urging his players to be brave enough to go out and attack Spain, in what is the first ever meeting between the sides in the World Cup finals.
“They have to be themselves and have to have the courage to play football against Spain,” said Van Marwijk. “They are two of the best teams and I emphasise the word 'team'.
“We beat Brazil and Spain beat Germany. Spain have played more attractive football than we have but the teams have the intention to play in the same way. Both teams have their own style but they resemble each other.
“We have lots of players who can score a goal and so do Spain. We have got to believe in ourselves and not be afraid. We are convinced we can win.”
Spain and Barcelona playmaker Xavi revealed his side are aware things have not quite clicked from an attacking point of view, but is confident they can assert their style on the final and end the country's long wait to become world champions.
“It is clear we have not scored many goals,” said the 30-year-old Xavi. “But we are feeling very comfortable with the way we are playing, and we are creating plenty of opportunities. Usually when you do that, you tend to get goals.
“But we are not converting the chances to our normal percentage. Let's see if we can lift that because it will be particularly important.
“Football around the world is very even at the moment, very balanced. It's the minor details that can be decisive.
“If there is a change in the world order I hope it's in favour of Spain. It's time for Spain to take its place at the top and I think this generation of players fully deserves that.
“We are just anxious to kick off and show the best possible side of Spain. We are filled with enthusiasm and motivated. It's an historic game for us and we want to enjoy the moment.”
This is a sentiment shared by Van Marwijk, who described the final as “the most important match in my football life”.
“It is quite something and this applies to all my players. No Dutch player has ever become world champion and that is extraordinary but we approach it as a special match,” he added.
The game has extra significance for Netherlands captain Giovanni van Bronkhorst, who has the opportunity to lift the World Cup in what is to be his final match before retiring.
The 35-year-old, who scored the Netherlands' opening goal in their 3-2 semi-final triumph over Uruguay, has already retired from club football and will earn his 106th and final international cap on Sunday.
“As a boy I remember Maradona and Cafu and Dunga holding up the trophy,” said Van Bronkhorst. “It is a dream to hold up that trophy. It would be fantastic for me, the Dutch team and the Dutch people to take it home.
“The only thing that counts is winning the final and we will walk on the pitch believing we can do it.”
In the past, the Netherlands have often being their own worst enemy at major tournaments as in-fighting eroded morale and saw them fail to fulfil their potential.
However, Van Bronkhorst paid testimony to the harmony in this Dutch squad, saying: “We have spent six or seven weeks with each other. It is important the atmosphere is good. If it is good off the pitch it will be good on the pitch.
“You might go the extra mile for your team-mate. We have seen teams here with problems outside the pitch causing problems on it, but we have a positive atmosphere which allows us to perform.”
While the Netherlands are expected to select the same side that beat Uruguay in the semi-final, with midfielder Wesley Sneijder and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg having shrugged off minor injuries, their opponents have selection issues to ponder.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque refused to divulge whether striker Fernando Torres – who has yet to score in the tournament, and was dropped in favour of Pedro for the semi-final – would return to the starting line-up, but hinted they were not afraid to change their tactics in such an important match.
“We've got a team filled with many possibilities – Plan A, plan B and other distinct solutions,” said the former Real Madrid coach.
Del Bosque added that he did not have any specific solution for stopping Dutch playmaker Sneijder, who has scored five goals from midfield and has been hailed by team-mate Arjen Robben as “the best player in the world over the last 12 months”.
“An anti-Sneijder plan? No,” said Del Bosque. “Teams nearly always have a player like this that drifts between the lines and that is difficult to mark. We have midfield players who are used to marking these types of players.”