Because for all the legend and magic that has surrounded the national teams of Holland and Brazil, the battle about to unfold between them is heavily stacked in Brazil’s favor. Just consider the numbers. Holland, one of the smallest countries in the world and with only 16 million inhabitants, will have to take the field against massive Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world and with a population exceeding 193 million souls. What's more, Brazil has already won the Cup a whopping 5 times. Holland, I must admit with infinite sadness, has won none, although we came within 2 centimeters of winning the grand price during stoppage time of the 1978 final, with Rob Rensenbrink hitting the post.
The 5 stars on the Brazilian jersey serve as a reminder to the greatness of Brazil as a football nation and the ability of their many star players to dazzle at the right moments. Players such as Pele, Garrincha, Rivelino, Tostao, Didi, Jairzinho, Socrates, Zico, Falcao, Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are all you need to think off if you truly want to grasp the greatness of Brazil. Winning the Cup on 5 different occasions between 1958 and 2002 serves to confirm the sustained ability of the Brazilian nation to produce world-class players, and teams, at an amazing rate. And this is an ability that goes beyond mere measures of size and population alone. Otherwise China, Russia or the US would have been able to compete with Brazil without any difficulty. They can't. They can't, because Brazil’s football greatness stems not from numbers or statistics, but from culture, passion and god-given talent. In that respect, 'Christ the Redeemer', overlooking Rio de Janeiro atop Corcovado, has been a very generous man when it comes to Brazilian football players.
Not that the Dutch have anything to complain about. After all, when it comes to the numbers, we shouldn't even be here, well on our way in the World Cup and respected as a grand football nation by friend and foe alike. If ever a country can be considered an anomaly in terms of resources vs. expected output, Holland is that country. To be able to recruit so many magnificent players from such a small pool of prospects over the course of the last 40 years is quite the achievement. But players such as Johan Cruijff, Willem van Hanegem, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert don't come along accidentally in such a small country. They come along because that small country arguably has the best youth academy structure in the world, employs some of the most skilled coaches around and has developed a unique playing style of its own. It is this mixture of concept, structure and expertise that enables Holland to far outperform its seemingly limited potential and to compete with the big guns.
These conflicting sources of excellence, or talent if you will, are what separate Holland and Brazil most clearly. Because, although both countries are respected for their attractive style of play, their mutual football philosophies don't compare well. Brazil’s samba football is mainly based on individual excellence, agility and the ability to convert unlimited technical potential into results. Holland's total football is more tactic based and focuses on a picture-perfect passing game, player movement and all-out attack.
Surprisingly, so far both countries have displayed none of these characteristics in this World Cup. All of a sudden they even seem quite similar in their play. Both Holland and Brazil employ a 'let's wait and see' approach and play modern counterattacking football, with the emphasis on a strong defense, controlling the flow of play and awaiting the right moment to strike. Classic Dutch attacking brilliance and legendary Brazilian fanfare and beauty are both missing in action. So, with this sudden similarity of play in mind, how do these teams, both stemming from classic but distinct football ideas, compare for tomorrow's match?
Well, for one, it won’t be the ultimate battle between samba football and total football. This is not 1974, this is 2010 and a whole different ballgame. Modern football focuses on physical strength, tactical brilliance, speed and agility and the extra 1% of class provided by the world’s most talented few. Tomorrow’s match will therefore most likely be a tactical struggle for control of possession, highlighted by sparks of genius by the likes of Kaka and Robben. This struggle will not be decided in midfield, nor in attack or defense. This struggle will be decided based on those sparse moments of utter class, on who’s more lucky and on who plays the best passing game. In general Brazil’s defensive line, including goalie, is stronger than Holland’s. In midfield, both teams more or less cancel each other out, although I consider De Jong-Van Bommel-Sneijder to have a slight advantage over Gilberto Silva-Felipe Melo-Dani Alves. Up front it is Kuyt-Van Persie-Robben vs. Robinho-Luis Fabiano-Kaka. Take your pick and good luck with that.
Holland-Brazil thus offers the perfect ingredients for a titanic battle of class as much as for a crippling stalemate. From a Dutch perspective, much will depend on whether Van Persie will finally shine, as many had expected him to do from match 1. If Van Persie plays well, and Robben and Sneijder are able to project their creativity onto Holland’s play, then I believe in our chances to progress. If not, it will be very hard to withstand Brazil’s drive.