Hail The New Messiah: Paul The Octopus
Paul the Octopus continued his astonishing streak of correctly predicting the outcome of German national soccer matches, with his record now standing at 10-1. The only match he got wrong was the last time Spain and Germany met, in the European Championships in 2008. Now the world is faced with a genuine oracle. The two year-old cephalopod should get a job as pundit for Sky Sports, at least he knows his football.
Perhaps this is the reason Germany looked so jaded out on the pitch today. Joachim Löw got it all wrong today in instructing the German side to sit deep and look to hit on the counter. The Germans invited the Spanish onto them all throughout the first half, absorbing pressure and daring the Spanish to shoot from outside the box. Spain was always looking for just one more pass, and Germany easily mopped up wave after wave of attacks.
David Villa had an excellent chance in one on one with the German goalkeeper Neuer, but Neuer positioned himself well enough to save the shot. Piotr Trochowski had a shot saved at the other end, and then Spain’s Sergio Ramos brought down Mesut Ozil from behind either right on the edge or right inside the penalty area. On slow-motion replay, Ramos clearly takes out Ozil’s left (anchor) leg, as Ozil was about to tuck the ball under to wrong-foot the Spaniard. A penalty could have been awarded and maybe that would have been harsh, but for the referee to just wave play on was ridiculous. And that was about the only meaningful goalmouth action for the first half hour, aside from 3 or 4 wrong offside calls.
At the start of the second half, Löw hooked the ineffective Boateng and Trochowski, and brought on Toni Kroos and Marcell Jansen. Spanish coach Del Bosque brought on Pedro to support David Villa in attack. As Germany pushed for the equalizer, a long cleared ball found Pedro, who sprinted past Lahm and raced into the area with only the keeper to beat. Pedro also had a passing option available but instead tried to get tricky and lost the ball. A goal right then would surely have killed off the game, and Germany were lucky to escape, albeit with their nerves a-jangle.
The Germans today did not play like the side that utterly dismantled England and humiliated Argentina. You had to check the team sheet to be sure that Khedira was even playing. Germany had no dominance in midfield, despite Schweinsteiger giving a heroic effort. The Spanish were all around, getting everyone behind the ball. The eventual undoing of the resolute German defense came from a corner kick. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique both went for the ball, with no German challenging aerially, and Puyol whipped his header into the net. 1-0 to Spain. Even this failed to spur the Germans into all-out attack. It seemed the referee was not interested in fouls against the Germans for at least half an hour, and maybe the ominous predictions of Paul the Psychic Octopus began weighing too heavily on the German team. One could see they were definitely missing the creativity of (wrongly) suspended striker Thomas Müeller, but they just didn’t seem to want it today.
Spain passed the ball around in circles, then took ages to trudge off the pitch when substituted, and after 3+ minutes of stoppage time, Spain found itself in its first-ever World Cup final. Spain face Holland on Sunday, and whichever team wins, the World Cup will have a new winner, and an eighth nation can claim to have lifted the trophy.
This Spanish side had squeaked through every match so far, winning four matches 1-0, and only putting 2 past Honduras and Chile. That is not the mark of a team with seven players from the Barcelona side, and five from Real Madrid. Where are the goals? Of course, the real story is that Spain has only given up one goal in this tournament, and that’s all it takes to win matches. If Spain plays this way in the final and wins, it will continue the dubious tradition of Brazil in 2002 and Italy in 2006, of winning ugly. I can guarantee that Spain will take the win, even if it is very ugly, if it means they can finally get their hands on the ultimate prize in sport.
Contrast this attitude with the total disowning of Dunga and his Brazil side by every Brazilian newspaper and pundit, for playing an “ugly” style of defensive football. The Italian winners of 2006 were likewise defensively minded and eschewed flair and invention in favor of pragmatism.
It’s easy, perhaps to moan about the lack of stylish football when your home team is no longer in contention for the cup, but for neutrals everywhere, this World Cup has been decidedly lacking in beautiful football. While the drama has been white hot, the football has not. The USA’s dramatic 92nd minute goal by Landon Donovan still stands as the most riveting rollercoaster ride of 2010’s tourney. The controversies of a demonic jabulani ball, legitimate goals not being allowed (USA had 2, England had 1), Spain’s David Villa diving in the last round for a penalty (that he missed), Uruguay’s Suarez’s swatting a goal-bound shot off the line with his hand, more missed penalties, Germany’s Neuer conning the referee that Frank Lampard’s strike did not cross the line – and so on, have made this World Cup memorable, the subject of extended taproom analysis, and dramatic. But 2010 has not been a World Cup to savor. I felt compelled to tell my viewing compadre, Chris, that this Spain vs. Germany match was about a B- in terms of watchable soccer. And this was a semi-final, not a cagey first-round clash between two sides lucky to be there.
The match for Third Place is on Saturday, and will be fought by Uruguay and Germany. The 2010 World Cup Final will be on Sunday, between Holland and Spain. There are exactly two matches remaining for any of these 4 teams to really turn on the style, to give us a proper show, a proper display of jogo bonita. Anything would be better than a cagey, cautious final limping towards extra time, like in 2006, which was only enlivened by Zidane headbutting Materazzi. Let these last four teams earn their places in history.
Based on the semi-finals, the teams are more evenly matched than they appeared leading up to this point. I think both matches will be close, separated by a lone goal, with Holland edging Spain, and Germany edging Uruguay. But then again, I don’t pretend to the omnipotence displayed by the mighty Paul The Octopus.