The Netherlands and Spain have something in common in this World Cup in that they have reached the semi-finals without playing terribly well but also because they have both conquered a bogeyman that they would always have to slay in order to win the tournament for the first time. For the Dutch it was Brazil, whom they couldn't overcome in 1994 and 1998; for Spain, it was getting to the semi-final for the first time in their history (we'll disregard their appearance in the final-four group stage in 1950). Spain felled a similar foe in the European Championships two years ago when they beat Italy - albeit on penalties - for the first time since the Spanish Civil War, and that gave them the a marked rise in confidence for the rest of the tournament, which was obvious when they swept the Germans aside in the final.
Both sides face tough challenges in the semi-final though the Netherlands will be glad that Luis Suárez, who scored freely in the Eriedivisie last season for Ajax will be missing because of his dastardly deed against Ghana, and the fact that captain Diego Lugano will line out not fully fit suggests that Uruguay are being stretched a bit thin. Spain are, surprisingly, being given few chances against Germany, not least because of the Germans' impressive performances against England and Argentina. Joachim Löw's boys are irrepressible when they have the initiative, which they grasped early on in those games but if they are held scoreless for long enough they soon begin to look very ordinary, as they did against Serbia and Ghana. Spain's ball retention will make it difficult for Germany to find the spaces to exploit as they did in their previous games. Even though they haven't been too impressive so far, Spain have also shown they are difficult to score against too. It should be a fascinating match, which I think Spain will edge 1-0 or 2-1, provided they manage to strike first.
A Spain-Netherlands final would give us a fixture that is rarely played in international football. The two teams have never met in a European Championships or World Cup and friendlies between them are few and far between. This is unusual given the profile of the two sides. They did however play against each other in the qualifying round for the 1984 European Championships and the group ended in one of the more controversial qualifying results in modern times. In a high-scoring group (even third-placed Ireland knocked in 20 in their eight games), the Dutch and the Spanish both finished their qualifying with games against Malta in December 1983. A 5-0 win for the Netherlands in Rotterdam left the Spaniards needing to win by eleven goals five days later in Seville to progress. Despite being only 3-1 up at half-time, they managed to reach the magic target, with Santillana scoring four goals and Poli Rincón three. The Dutch cried blue murder at a fix and the result was as responsible as the Anschluss match between West Germany and Austria in Gijón at the previous year's World Cup for FIFA and UEFA mandating final group games be played at the same time.
Spain went on to shock reigning champions West Germany (at the time under Jupp Derwall's management a team as loathsome as the current Germans are admirable) in France and reach the final where Luís Arconoda's unfortunate blunder allowed Michel Platini's free kick to squeeze under his body. But I wonder what would have happened if the Dutch, with much the same players that would win the European Championships four years later, had got to France? Gullit, Rijkaard, Koeman and Van Basten were already in place, together with a few of the older generation from 1978 as well as Arnold Muhren and Johnny Metgod. They then failed to reach Mexico 86, being edged out by Belgium. Who knows, if Spain had not scored that twelfth goal against the Maltese, the Dutch team of the 1980s would be remembered even more fondly than that of Cruyff, Rep, Rensenbrink and Neeskens.
Here are the goals from Spain 12 Malta 1. See if you can spot anything fishy: