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FIFA World Cup: Four years later, Round 2

Defending champs Spain kick off campaign against Netherlands, last editions’ beaten finalists.

Robin Van Persie (R) trains with Stefan de Vrij, Arjen Robben and Nigel de Jong. (Source: AP) Robin Van Persie (R) trains with Stefan de Vrij, Arjen Robben and Nigel de Jong. (Source: AP)

Gazing into the camera lens and speaking in his crisp Catalan lilt, Cesc Fabregas utters the documentary’s first few words — “I had to take a penalty.” The scene cuts to the Ernst-Happel Stadion in Austria and Fabregas is seen breaking away from the Spanish camp by the half-line. He sighs as he walks up to the spot. In front of him stands Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon.

“It wasn’t just a penalty,” Fabregas adds. It sure wasn’t.

Until that moment, in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 against Italy, Fabregas hadn’t taken a penalty in his professional career. Not once. Now, his kick had more than just a match riding on it. The toe of his boot had the chance to send perennial underachievers Spain into the semifinals, where they would finally get an opportunity to turn years of pent-up frustration into potential.

In Cesc’s Story of Spain, a documentary that narrates a gripping tale of La Roja’s first tryst with success, the footage fades to black the moment he makes contact with the ball. And then, the video bursts into a montage of manic celebrations. Spain captain Iker Casillas hoists the Euro 2008 trophy. Then he kisses the World Cup in 2010. And finally, he lifts Euro 2012 as well.

For the Spanish football team and its bunch of now-smug supporters, the last six years must perhaps be a similar blur; a blur of incomprehensible brilliance. Quite like a dream, where the imagery arrives in snatches, one minute they’re on the verge of yet another disappointment and the next, they’re a generation defining football team — hailed among the greatest ever.

For Holland, however, Spain’s success is anything but a haze. Just ask Wesley Sneijder, who can recall each of the 120 minutes of the World Cup 2010 final in Johannesburg and everyday since that he has spent cursing it. “We were so close to penalties, just three minutes before the end of extra time,” said Sneijder on Holland’s arrival in Salvador, reminding the press of exactly when Andres Iniesta’s 117th minute decider at Soccer City arrived four years ago. “That’s really the low point of my career — walking past the Cup and not holding it. That will always be my rockbottom.”

On that night, Sneijder was only one of two Dutch players who was not shown the yellow card (14 yellows and one red were flashed by Howard Webb in what was considered the ugliest final of them all). Four years on, when Holland seek to bury the ghosts of Jo’burg during their opening game against the reigning world champions, Sneijder is only one of seven Dutch players to not get the axe from the previous World Cup squad.

STAYING TOGETHER

Spain, on the other hand, have retained as many as 18 players from their World Cup success — 11 of whom have won each of their three majors in the past six years. While these boys-turned-men are a reassuring sight for coach Vicente del Bosque (who too, it must be said, has remained unchanged since 2010) in the dressing room, not everyone is convinced.

Two diametrically opposite schools of thought have emerged from Spain’s low rate of attrition. One says that no team is as successful as an already successful one. And Spain, of course, are enormously successful. In this school, specialist research teams (such as Swiss based CIES, who have crunched enough numbers to tell you that Spain will beat Brazil in this final) and several other prophetic animals (Paul the Octopus has a successor in a mystic turtle this time around) are screaming a Spain victory from rooftops.

The other school, in which plenty of cynical journalists are in attendance, believes that too much success has blunted the side’s killer edge. On Wednesday, Koke was asked if this theory was true. Wrong question to a man playing his first big tournament in his nation’s red. “We have become winners because we have a winning mentality,” the Atletico Madrid midfielder retorted.

Here, Koke’s teammate Javi Martinez (World Cup and Euro ‘12 winner) cut in. “When you’re champions, there is that extra bit of motivation to do well,” he said. “With Bayern (Munich) I have experienced that pressure that comes with everyone wanting to beat the holders.” More than everyone else, it’s Martinez’s Bayern teammate, Arjen Robben, who hopes to achieve this target.

Midway through the second half of the Johannesburg final, Holland’s playmaker found himself one-on-one with Casillas. “I think about that moment a lot,” Robben said. “It still hurts that I missed such a chance.”

When they meet in the tunnel on Friday, these emotions ought to come flooding back, even if for a fleeting few seconds. For Robben and Holland, those seconds will be filled with an overwhelming pang of what-could’ve-been. And for Fabregas and Spain, a trip down nostalgia lane to where it all began. Then, as they take the field to start their campaigns afresh, all the excesses will fade to black.

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