(Reuters) – At a morning kick around on a dirt soccer pitch in South Africa’s Soweto township, there is only one team the boys all want to emulate — Spain.
“They play such easy, one-touch football. Tap and push, tap and push, then shoot and goal!” said Dumisani Motye, 13, lining up the ball repeatedly to try and curl shots like David Villa.
The Spanish striker and World Cup joint-top scorer is a hero for Motye and his friends from the local ‘Newcastle F.C.’ team. They are all backing Spain against Netherlands in Sunday’s final just down the road at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium.
“Spain have great strikers, great playmakers, we love them,” Motye said, to nods of approval from a crowd of kids practicing shots and moves by themselves in the sunshine.
After hosts South Africa were knocked out in the first phase, most locals transferred their allegiance to the only African team that reached the second round — Ghana.
When the Ghanaians lost to Uruguay in an agonizing quarter-final shootout, African loyalty ended and local fans have since been picking teams based on who shows the most flair or has the big names they like following on TV.
Spain fit that bill on both fronts, and in Soweto it was hard to find anyone backing the Dutch for Sunday.
“We are so much disappointed with our own teams,” said perfume-seller Jack Lutaaya Kato, 22. “In Africa, we admire teams who play beautiful football and Spain make us happy.”
Jobless Siyabonga Zulu, 35, said Spain played the South African style, but better: “They have a very nice system. I do not like the long passes the Netherlands play.”
The Dutch, however, have had plenty of local support too throughout the tournament. Their loud and friendly orange-clad fans have made a positive impression on locals, and they have historical connections with South Africa.
In Cape Town, where Dutch colonizers first arrived in the mid-17th century, orange flags, scarves and other fan gear have dominated the displays on stalls and in shops.
“We have lots of cultural ties with Netherlands here, through history and the Afrikaans language which is just like Dutch,” said 46-year-old Benny Roberts.
“The Dutch also play good soccer. I love to watch them.”
It was, of course, the Dutch and British colonizers who paved the way for white rule and apartheid in South Africa, but there seems little resentment towards Netherlands for that.
“My friends say in fact that it was Netherlands people who made this country advanced, who helped develop South Africa,” said 18-year-old Johannesburg student Mzwakhe Tyali.
“Apartheid is in the past now. Let bygones be bygones. Anyway, what does it have to do with football?”
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Cape Town; Editing by Ken Ferris)