One month ago, the 2010 World Cup began with the host, South Africa, taking on Mexico. Sixty-two matches later, 30 teams have been eliminated, meaning the World Cup final, featuring heavyweights Spain and the Netherlands, is here at last. Here's how the game breaks down.
What's on the line
Only seven countries have won the World Cup. That number will increase by one on Sunday, as two countries with long histories of World Cup frustration will square off in the final at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium.
After an early 1-0 loss to Switzerland, Spain has been ruthlessly efficient with its possession game, winning its past four matches by one goal. The Dutch have won all six of their matches and are bidding to become the sixth team in tournament history to win the title with a perfect record.
Style and tactics
The match will feature two highly technical sides that love to possess the ball. But Spain has turned ownership of the ball into a fine art. Its midfield not only wears out opponents with its movement and slick passing but also does plenty to win the ball back.
There are times when Spain's attack can lack width, and the cure is to get fullbacks Joan Capdevila and Sergio Ramos into the attack. Not only does this twist opposing defenses out of shape, it also allows midfielders such as Andres Iniesta to tuck inside and outnumber opponents in the center of the park.
One question that remains for Spain is whether the squad gives forward Fernando Torres another start or plays David Villa in the lone striker role. Villa has looked more comfortable when stationed out on the left wing, while Torres has been far short of his best, giving manager Vicente Del Bosque a tactical headache.
Spain's defense has been the best in the tournament, conceding just two goals so far. Although much of this is due to La Furia Roja's possession game, center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique have formed an effective partnership in the back, while holding midfielder Sergio Busquets has been quietly effective in front of them.
The Netherlands' attack, while perhaps not as stylish as Spain's, has been more effective. The Dutch have scored 12 goals, just one behind tournament leader Germany. The key is a varied approach that combines the distribution and goal scoring of Wesley Sneijder, the dribbling ability of Arjen Robben and the tenacity of Dirk Kuyt.
The Oranje's back line hasn't always looked convincing in the tournament, meaning plenty will be demanded of holding midfielders Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Outside backs Gregory Van Der Wiel and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst have been solid, however, and have contributed to the attack, as evidenced by Van Bronckhorst's long-range strike in the semifinal against Uruguay.
Players to watch
David Villa, Spain. Although Villa was kept off the score sheet against Germany, he remains La Furia Roja's most in-form attacker, with five goals in the tournament. Villa often likes to drift out to the left wing, and the speed advantage he'll have against Van Der Wiel makes this a matchup to keep an eye on.
Xabi Alonso, Spain. Alonso occupies a more deep-lying role than players such as Xavi and Iniesta, but his long-range passing is a critical part of Spain's attack. Alonso also has the ability to shoot from long distance, and that threat can end up creating space for teammates closer to the goal. The Spain midfielder will also team with Busquets to help defuse opposition attacks.
Carles Puyol, Spain. Puyol has been one of the rocks of the Spanish defense, and in a game in which set pieces could be the difference, the Barcelona defender figures to play a crucial role at both ends of the field. It was Puyol's header goal that provided the winning margin in the semifinal against Germany. He'll aim to latch onto the deliveries of club teammate Xavi once again.
Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands. Although Sneijder's distribution is a key element of the Dutch attack, his goal-scoring touch has been just as critical, and his five goals currently have him tied for the Golden Boot alongside Villa. Given Spain's likely advantage in possession, Sneijder will need to make his touches count, much as he did in the Oranje's comeback win over Brazil in the quarterfinals.
Mark Van Bommel, Netherlands. With De Jong providing more steel in midfield, it will be up to Van Bommel to link defense to attack with some safe, solid passes. Given Spain's penchant for attacking up the middle, the Bayern Munich midfielder will also need to team up with De Jong to clog the passing lanes and otherwise disrupt Spain's rhythm.
Dirk Kuyt, Netherlands. Kuyt might not have Robben's dribbling ability or Sneijder's vision, but the Liverpool forward does plenty of dirty work that often finds him in the thick of the action. Kuyt is plenty capable on the ball as well, as evidenced by his inch-perfect cross that led to Robben's goal in the semifinal against Uruguay. Kuyt also will need to do what he can to occupy Ramos on the left wing and thus limit the Spaniard's marauding runs forward.
What we can expect
Given the talent on display, look for an epic midfield battle to ensue. This is especially true in the center of the park, where Van Bommel and De Jong will look to contain Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta.
Spain can be expected to have more of the ball and take the attacking initiative, although the Dutch are likely to have some decent spells of their own. Spain's aggression will have the effect of limiting the touches of Dutch danger men such as Sneijder and Robben as well as tiring out the Oranje's midfield. La Furia Roja also will need to be aware of the Netherlands' ability on the counter and avoid having left back Capdevila isolated against Robben.
For the Dutch, seeing less of the ball doesn't necessarily spell their doom. The Netherlands was down a goal in the second half against Brazil but still managed to pull out a victory. Doing that against Spain will require getting Sneijder and Robben the ball often enough to have an impact, and again, this will require Van Bommel and De Jong to be on top of their respective games. The Oranje will have to make their set-piece opportunities count as well.
Both teams have long histories of World Cup disappointment, but Spain's triumph at Euro 2008 will give its players the belief that they can triumph at big tournaments, providing them with an edge against the Dutch. The Netherlands won't be lacking for confidence, though, especially now that Van Der Wiel and De Jong -- both suspended for the semifinal -- are back in the fold.
One wild card in all of this is Torres. The forward was held out of the starting lineup against Germany after some indifferent displays in earlier matches, but if Spain finds itself in need of a goal late in the match, he could be just the man to find a breakthrough.
Spain appears to be peaking at the right time. Although its attack hasn't scored a ton of goals, it has done enough while preventing opponents from getting their offense into gear. Look for Spain to prevail 1-0.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.