Spain’s style has a distinctly Dutch imprint

They are two former colonial powers fighting over gold in Africa — and doesn’t that have a familiar ring?

This time around, though, the Dutch and the Spanish are not involved in a land grab, or if they are it is only over who will control a patch of grass at Soccer City on Sunday night.

That’s when the World Cup final will be played in Johannesburg, where the Netherlands takes on Spain for the 2010 title. But if there are tears in Amsterdam come Monday morning, the Dutch will have only themselves to blame.

Or rather, one of their favorite sons will have to shoulder the burden.

After all, if Johan Cruyff had not taken his bag of magic tricks to Barcelona as a player in the mid-1970s and as coach in 1988, the Catalans would not have learned how to play an even more beautiful version of football than they already played.

And the Spanish team that has waltzed its way past the opposition in South Africa — the stubborn Swiss being the lone exception — would not have featured quite as many outrageously talented Barcelona players.

That, in turn, would have given the Netherlands as good a chance of winning the World Cup as it has had since, well, the 1970s, when Cruyff was in his heyday.

So, yes, blame Cruyff by all means if the Oranje fall to the Spaniards.

It all began in Amsterdam, when Cruyff and a few teammates turned Ajax Amsterdam into Europe’s leading club with their dazzling play. For a brief period in the ‘70s, there was Ajax and then there were the rest. The club ruled the soccer roost and Cruyff was the, uh, head rooster, the one whose orange plumage shone the brightest.

He also was the player who, along with a gifted collection of misfits, took the Netherlands to the World Cup final in 1974, only to lose by a single goal. The Dutch, without Cruyff, reached the final again in 1978, and again lost by a single goal.

Even today, the psychic scars from those twin defeats have not healed, although a victory Sunday night would help erase the pain.

Cruyff later wandered the world, even having a brief flirtation with the American colonies but finding the soccer there wanting. The Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats were not Ajax by a long, long shot.

Eventually Cruyff returned to coach Barcelona, where he had played following his time at Ajax, and this time he taught the Catalans the kaleidoscopic Dutch way of playing, based on ball possession, one-touch passing and constant player movement.

The club has not looked back since.

“Cruyff was the catalyst,” former club president Joan Laporta told The Times last summer.

With Cruyff as coach, Barcelona won four consecutive Spanish league titles and its first European Cup, in 1992. One of the key players on his team was Josep “Pep” Guardiola, who, as Barcelona’s rookie coach in 2009, won everything in sight, including a third European Cup.

In between Cruyff’s triumph and Guardiola’s success, Barcelona won the European Cup in 2006 under another Dutchman, Frank Rijkaard, who, playing alongside Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit, had led the Netherlands to its only international trophy, the European Championship in 1988.

It was obvious, therefore, who Coach Vicente del Bosque would turn to when building Spain’s World Cup team and, true enough, the Spanish roster features eight Barcelona players.

They include not only home-grown stars from the club’s vaunted youth academy — Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol — but also Spain’s leading goal scorer in South Africa, forward David Villa, who joined Barcelona from Valencia in May for a $52-million transfer fee.

As Cruyff put it this week in the Spanish newspaper El Periodico, “Spain’s style is that of Barcelona.”

Indeed, Puyol’s game-winning headed goal in the semifinal against Germany was on a play routinely run by Barcelona: Xavi with the corner kick to Puyol running toward the penalty spot.

Bert van Marwijk, the Netherlands’ World Cup coach, said his team aspires to play like Spain, but the fact is that Spain only plays like Spain because of its Dutch imprint.

So, while Amsterdam prepares to paint the town orange and to welcome 2 million people to a floating victory parade along its famous canals on Tuesday, the folk there best be prepared to be disappointed.

Barcelona-powered Spain might well win the World Cup. Cruyff should have stayed at home.