It started after game one, firstly as a joke: Germany had beaten Australia 4-0 in a superb performance, while the Netherlands played just well enough to grind out a 2-0 win over Denmark. Germany is playing like the Netherlands and the Netherlands like Germany, people said. Ha, ha. Then, as the tournament went on, it was no longer a joke. It was true. Germany hit four past England and Argentina, while Holland scrambled past Japan and Slovakia and beat Brazil with two goals from set-pieces.
The pair won't meet in Sunday¹s World Cup final, as Germany took the comparison to its logical conclusion and was knocked out in the semifinal, just as the Netherlands was in the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships. Instead, the Netherlands will face Spain, a team that has taken the Dutch mantle as the neutrals' favourite after excelling over the past few seasons, and in its semifinal win over Germany, with its tiki-taka passing game.
Germany's presence will still loom large on Sunday as the Dutch attempt to exorcise the memory of defeats in the 1978 final (to Argentina) and the 1974 final (to West Germany). Beating Spain to win the World Cup would secure the Netherlands a place in history, but not give it what it craves most: closure on 1974.
The Dutch team of 1974 is one of the most famous in soccer history: inspired by Ajax's Johan Cruyff, it played "Total Football," a fluid, offensive style in which each player adopted multiple positions during a game depending on where their teammates were. Just like Hungary in 1954, and Brazil in 1982, the team did not win a major tournament, but that only added to its lustre. Cruyff has even claimed that the Dutch did win in 1974, as the team¹s glorious style was still revered, which in itself was a victory.
Part of the reason that West Germany beat Holland in 1974 was down to the man-marking job its midfielder Berti Vogts did on Cruyff. It later emerged that Gunter Netzer, a playmaker whose side Borussia Moenchengladbach side was closest to Ajax in terms of attacking football (it even beat Inter Milan 7-1 in a European tie in 1971, in a game that was annulled in controversial circumstances) had pretended to be Cruyff during training sessions to prepare Vogts. Netzer was good enough to imitate Cruyff in training, but he did not play in the final itself.
Now the wheel has come full circle: the Germans have gone Dutch, specifically in Bayern Munich's recruitment of coach Louis van Gaal, and the colonies of Dutch players in Munich (Mark van Bommel, Arjen Robben) and Hamburg (Joris Mathijsen, Romeo Castelen, Eljero Elia and Ruud van Nistelrooy). The Dutch players who have had success in Germany want to win the World Cup and don't mind how they do it. So they have reverted to the old German way.
"Holland used to regard this style of play as the devil and was always above it," David Winner, author of the seminal book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, told SI.com. "The way they are playing is betraying everything they believe in, and I can't work out if I'm watching the beginning of one thing or the end of something else."
In the early rounds, like most Dutch fans, Winner assumed that the Netherlands was saving itself, that more exciting soccer would come in the knockout rounds, when it mattered. But it hasn't and the fact that Dirk Kuyt has become such an important player -- as shown by Uruguay's second goal, created down the Dutch left and scored minutes after Kuyt had switched to the right -- says it all. "Kuyt is like an old-fashioned German player, he's been extraordinary but the Dutch don't appreciate his type, they prefer to focus on Wesley Sneijder," said Winner.
The presence of Frank de Boer and Philip Cocu as part of coach Bert van Marwijk's backroom team has helped shape this ideology. Both men were part of the 1998 and 2000 sides that lost in semifinal penalty shootouts when Holland had probably the best team in both tournaments. Former striker Dennis Bergkamp recently admitted that the team was not psychologically ready to get past the last four, but the sense of a missed opportunity has never left that generation. De Boer and Cocu have drummed that into this group of players.
Speaking to Winner about Dutch football is the linguistic version of watching re-runs of that 1974 side: full of original ideas that seem complicated but are in fact surprisingly simple. He puts the problems between Robin van Persie and Sneijder down to their different visions of space "Van Persie is all about little swirls around himself, while Sneijder is all about long triangles" and wonders, romantically, if the team might win the World Cup and wake up the next day and think, collectively, "I didn¹t enjoy any of that."
His friend, the political scientist Paul Scheffer, says this Holland side plays like accountants, reflecting the current sense of caution in Dutch society. The theme of football set against the backdrop of national identity is a recurring one. In the 1970s, its players were expressing a personal freedom that was part of Dutch society. Holland gained its reputation for creativity and beauty partly as a result of its football, but those two qualities have been in fairly short supply despite the six straight wins to reach Sunday's final.
Every fan supporting Holland has a dilemma if not before Sunday, then certainly after it: to accept that this style is the new reality of Dutch football (and by extension, society) or to hope that future teams will continue to pay homage to the Cruyff era, even if it ends, as it has done so many times, in glorious failure. "I would really love it if Holland won the World Cup and said to itself, 'See, when we play like everyone else, we can win it,'" added Winner. "And then after that, to go back to its old way of playing."
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.