JOHANNESBURG — Soccer will crown its 2010 World Cup champion today, and in the process, open the doors to an exclusive club for just the second time in three decades.
Only seven nations have won the title, but with two teams that have endured decades of disappointment meeting in front of a Soccer City Stadium crowd that will include presidents, prime ministers and princes, the list will grow by one.
Make way for Spain or the Netherlands.
Since the inaugural competition 80 years ago, Brazil, Italy or Germany have won 12 of the 18 championships. Argentina and Uruguay have combined for four. England has claimed one as has France, the most recent nation to break into the club in 1998.
But as each standard-bearer was eliminated the past four weeks, a refreshing matchup emerged, featuring teams with distinguished yet unsatisfying traditions. These countries have helped define modern soccer and provided a ceaseless supply of talent to Europe's decorated leagues. But Spain and the Netherlands still lack World Cup validation.
For one, the time has come.
"The history of football owes us this one," Spain defender Carlos Marchena said. "There have been great moments in our history (and) we have been through several great disappointments. Perhaps this time we are to change those bitter moments."
The Netherlands appeared in consecutive finals in the 1970s before self-destruction became its hallmark. Until last week, Spain had never reached a proper semifinal (its fourth-place finish in 1950 came in a final group stage among the last four teams).
It was not unexpected that one of these teams would be in the title game. After all, Spain won the 2008 European Championship and joined Brazil as World Cup favorites; the Netherlands was a darling choice after barreling through qualifying.
The fact that both made it, however, defied historic trends:
• Brazil, Italy or Germany had been a finalist in every tournament except 1930 and '78, filling 20 of 36 title-game slots.
• With two European teams here, soccer's most distinguished confederation will finally win a World Cup outside its continent.
• If the Dutch lose, they would inherit the dubious distinction of a third second-place finish without a title. (Germany has been beaten four times in the final but also has won three trophies.)
Losing has not been in the Dutch vocabulary this World Cup cycle. They won all eight games in qualification (by a 17-2 scoring margin) and all six in South Africa, culminating with a 2-1 comeback over Brazil in the quarterfinals and a 3-2 triumph against Uruguay in the semis.
"And we are not going to allow Spain to beat us now," said midfielder Wesley Sneijder, the conductor of the Dutch attack, whose five goals share the tournament scoring lead with Uruguay's Diego Forlan, Spain's David Villa and Germany's Thomas Mueller.
Added midfielder Arjen Robben, "We have yet to show our most beautiful football."
Spain's campaign began with a stunning 1-0 loss to Switzerland, just its second defeat in 31/2 years — the other came against the United States in the 2009 Confederations Cup. But La Furia Roja (the Red Fury) began to find its form.
In the knockout phase it has earned three narrow 1-0 victories. In Wednesday's win over Germany, Spain kept the ball like a child unwilling to share a new toy. Today, Spain or the Netherlands will earn something far more valuable.
"No Dutch player has ever become a world champion in football," coach Bert van Marwijk said. "That's something special. But still we have to approach it as any ordinary game."