JOHANNESBURG -- For the first time in my life I walked into a sporting event decidedly undecided. A few weeks ago, I rooted hard for the Richmond Flying Squirrels against the Akron Aeros (who, had they ceremonially changed their mascot to the Hammers, just might have kept LeBron in Ohio) in a Double-A baseball game. But, getting off the plane in Jo-burg Sunday morning to fulfill my duties as OTB's foreign correspondent I thought, "I kinda like Spain. And I kinda like Holland."
So I went into Soccer City and waited for a team to choose me.
Before I could choose, I had to sit through a Shakira concert. Anyone who knows me knows that pomp and circumstance is not my thing. But, to paraphrase Bono, sometimes "you get stuck in a moment and you can't get out." So I watched the entire closing ceremony, which was essentially 50 kids in last-year's Kanye outfits dancing on a laser light show projected from above on a 5,000-square meter slip 'n' slide. As far as major sporting event spectacles go, this ranked somewhere between China's 2008 artistic masterpiece and Canada's 2010 "Let's stick Wayne Gretzky in the back of a Chevy pickup and drive him down the backroads of some Vancouver suburb."
Then Fabio Cannavaro arrived, looking all sorts of dapper, but a little too pleased to be handing off the Cup, like a Miss America whose nude photos got released online and now can't wait to pass off the crown.
Joseph S. "Uncle Sepp" Blatter strolled onto the pitch, and then Nelson Mandela cruised in. And the man looked spectacular. His smile might have been the singular moment of this World Cup. I, Producer/Slovakian Dave, choked up.
Africa. World Cup. Uncle Sepp, for all his faults sure got this right. It wasn't perfect ... but it kind of was.
It was clear at the gates that Spanish fans were outnumbered 2.5 to 1 in the stadium. As any of my family or friends can tell you, I am nothing if not a hater of the home team. Spain 1, Holland 0.
Uncle Sepp granted us one replay -- showing the teams leaving their buses. The Dutch came first, all 23 of them wearing headphones. I instantly imagined a mash-up of the 23 worst house music songs of all time and decided to enlist Rog to go inside the minds of the Dutch roster to intuit each man's "last bus tune." Then the Spaniards got off there buses. Only two* of the 23 were wearing headphones. I've lost enough sports games to know this was a good omen for Spain. Spain 2, Holland 0.
* Sergio Ramos and Carles Puyol. Perfect.
Then some poor footie lover sprinted dead across the field in a once-in-a-lifetime effort to touch the World Cup trophy, only to receive a vicious throat punch about an inch short of his goal. It was so analogous to Holland's World Cup history that I felt bad for the Oranj. Spain 2, Holland 1.
Holland came out in all orange, Spain in all navy. I was in Amsterdam during Euro 2000 and my brother went to Tennessee that fall so I've always had this weird admiration for the Dutch football side and the Vols. A Saturday in Knox-Vegas is more similar to a weekend in Amsterdam than many in either town would care to admit. Spain 2, Holland 2.
The teams rushed the field for warm-ups, headphones left behind. The loudspeakers abruptly blared Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies." At the far end of the pitch, the Spanish huddled in a formation that reminded me of Drew Brees' pregame Saints huddle. The Dutch, meanwhile, were doing the karaoke warm-up perfectly in sync with the song. It was the least masculine thing I've ever seen. Spain 3, Holland 2.
The really nice Afrikaner next to me kept saying, "Let's go The Netherlands." Something about his insistence on calling it "The Netherlands" got me. I mean, this was every 12 seconds. Spain 3, Holland 3.
Both national anthems were sublimely succinct. The weird thing was, every Dutch fan knew every word and sang along. Every Spanish fan around me was totally faking it. Spain 3, Holland 4.
At this point, I was sick and tired of how the Dutch are both from Holland and "The Netherlands" and that a large portion of their fans seemed to be from sumvhere elsche. The Spaniards might not know their anthem, but they were definitely from Spain. Spain 4, Holland 4.
In early June, Rog picked Spain to lose the World Cup. In mid-July, he predicted them to win. He couldn't lose. And neither could Shane Smeltz Junior Bennett, as a Spanish victory would send New Zealand a posthumous victory as the only undefeated World Cup team. Go Shane! Go New Zealand! Go Africa! Vamos Espana! Spain 5, Holland 4.
I chose my side a moment before kickoff and as I watched the physical brutality unfold, I hoped for no one to score. I told my new Afrikaner friend Don that I'd like to see it go to extra time, and he agreed. "But no penalties," Don said. "That would be a shame." When Andres Iniesta scored, he was the only Dutch supporter around not screaming offside.
Satisfied in his narrow defeat, Don led the postgame cheers for the Spanish conquistadors. What more can you ask for in a World Cup of Parity? Spain 1, The Netherlands 0.