At the conclusion of the 2010 World Cup’s 120-minute final between Spain and the Netherlands, it became obvious that Germany was the best team. Germany played the most dynamic and attractive football of the tournament, combining possession with penetration, and in every match (save Spain) they played quick, thrilling football that was easy on the eye. But it was not to be Germany’s time; that honor fell to Spain, who are now only the 8th nation to have won a World Cup. Congratulations to Spain.
The clash between Spain and Holland was decided in the second half of extra time, when Iniesta beat the offside trap and coolly banged his shot past the helpless Stekelenburg in the 116th minute. Another 1-0 victory for Spain, making it the 5th in this tournament. Spain’s 8 goals in 7 matches is, not coincidentally, the lowest number of goals scored by the winners in World Cup history. Is patient, sideways, possession football the way of the future? Spain’s slick passing was beautiful to behold all tourney long, but as the minutes dragged on without a goal, it started to seem like an awful lot of foreplay with no penetration. And listen, we’ve all been dating Spain for four years now, and maybe that’s long enough.
Contrast Spain’s coy petting with what the Dutch foisted on the world. If Spain was chaste kissing on the couch, then Holland was a beer-flavored sloppy kiss before being thrown to the floor and ridden like the (insert phrase here) you are. The Dutch clearly were not going to sit back and get passed to death, as befell the Germans. Spain appeared to have fooled the Dutch into thinking they were going to be cautious, and instead, the Spanish were at their throats, controlling the game for the first 20 minutes. The Dutch could barely get out of their own half, and resorted to kicking players up in the air. There were 3 yellow cards in the first 12 minutes. It was a display of brutality. The most joyous moment, I mean, the most unsporting moment, came when Nigel de Jong (a goon in anyone’s book) karate kicked Xabi Alonso in the center of his chest. On a normal day that’s a straight red. Referee Webb was likely reluctant to have the final match turn so decisively on a foul, and gave a yellow instead. This imbalance was repeated all across the rest of the match, with innocuous nothings awarded yellow cards, professional fouls not called at all, and more cynical tactics waved on.
No one will deny that sins were committed today against beautiful soccer. Players like De Jong and Van Bommel certainly didn’t cover themselves in glory, but then their names would have to be jotted down next to Puyol, Capdevila, and Xavi. When all tallied, referee Howard Webb handed out 13 yellow card cautions and 1 red card. Not quite the disaster of the Netherlands vs. Portugal match of 2006, but only because Webb mystifyingly started using double standards. Moments before Heitinga was sent off for a second yellow, for dragging a loose arm across Iniesta, the exact same thing was done to Arjen Robben on the wing, impeding his momentum. But because Iniesta made a meal of it by flopping to the deck, Webb only awarded that foul. Indeed, there is a rule that if a player brandishes an invisible “card” the ref, asking for another play to be booked, then that player is supposed to be cautioned. It’s generally thought to be “unsportsmanlike” to ask for your opponent to go in the book, and already in this tournament we have seen a player carded for just such a thing. Yet, in this match, Ramos, Puyol, Iniesta, and Alonso, at least, brandished imaginary cards and none of them were punished for it. If Webb had acted with consistency, that would have meant Puyol and Iniesta both sent off, with Puyol being sent off twice.
Do we even mention the not-given red card and penalty? Arjen Robben was through on goal with Puyol snapping at his heels, when Puyol illegally pulled him back. Robben stayed on his feet but lost the ball. No call was made. None. Not only was this a foul, but as Puyol was the last defender, it was a straight red. So a penalty and a red card denied, and why, Mr. Webb? In the buildup to Spain’s goal, Heitinga touched but did not impede Iniesta, and Iniesta’s subsequent dive means he’s a shoe-in to make the Olympic diving team. Heitinga got a second yellow and was off, and the resulting play ended up with Spain a goal to the good. And it was a splendid goal, at that. The Dutch were wrongly incensed over a (correctly) un-awarded offsides call, and some players talked themselves into the ref’s book in the fracas. And one goal is all it takes.
Around all this unsportsmanlike bullshit, some thrilling football broke out, against all odds. There were one-on-one chances for both teams, and both keepers made stunning saves with their legs. Sergio Ramos powered a header goalward and only a diving save from Stekelenburg denied the Spaniards.
Paul The Octopus retires from this World Cup with a perfect 100% record. He predicted Spain for the winners, and lo, Spain are the new World Champions. An interesting side note is that Switzerland were the only team to beat the champions in this World Cup, and the USA is the only other team to beat Spain in the last 4 years. New Zealand are the only team that didn’t lose a game, drawing all three group stage matches and being eliminated on points. Landon Donovan’s 92nd minute goal against Algeria and Ghana’s missed penalty to win it against Uruguay are the two most thrilling moments, one of surging, glorious redemption for a side that had a goal wrongly chalked off, and the other a crushing, bitter disappointment for a side that had their goal-bound winning shot slapped away by the hand of the devil.
The game of the tournament for me was Germany vs. Argentina, where speed in attack was coupled with an overall great team performance. A largely unheralded and young German side against some genuine world-class players and a living legend in their manager. It’s a shame the Germans forgot how to play against Spain, but it bears repeating that they were without 20 year old sensation Thomas Müller. Müller was awarded the Golden Boot, as the most prolific scorer (5 goals and 3 assists) and also won the Best Young Player award. Uruguay’s Diego Forlan won the Golden Ball, naming him the best player overall. Forlan at times did carry his whole team on his back, and it’s a fitting award for such a likable and hard-working, not to mention talented player. It’s hard to pass up playmakers like Bastian Schweinsteiger for Germany and Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands, who were both incredible, but you can’t hand out three “Best Player” awards. Iker Casillas picked up the Golden Glove for being the best keeper, and his stellar performances definitely kept Spain in the hunt. Goal of the tournament could be Gio Van Bronckhorst’s 42 yard bullet, or Tshabalala’s opening goal, or Donovan’s equalizer from an impossible angle, or Tevez’s thunderbolt from outside the area. So many good goals to choose from, but did we see the heights of football? Did we really wait four years for that final? Brazil never really turned up, Argentina proved to be something of a bad joke, France and Italy went home with their tails firmly between their legs, and England arrived home as laughingstocks. (Why on earth anyone would play for England, based on the lashing they get from their fans, is a mystery.) Holland had a huge reputation to live up to, and instead plowed a rougher route through brutal football. Spain, the darlings of Euros 2008, did the business but never set any hearts a-fire. What about samba football, or jogo bonita, or Total Football? What about a game that would turn a neutral into a hardcore fan?
Spain never approached those heights, but still they did all they needed to do. Italy were not very impressive winners either, in 2006, so maybe that is the new paradigm. If you want to win, hold the ball, sit back, wait, pass sideways, kill the game off, wait for the opponents to make one defensive lapse, and crush them on the break. We must now all play like Greece in 2004, when they won the European championships by parking the proverbial bus in front of the goal. If it was the USA who had prevailed thusly in the World Cup and we were still singing from the win, it would be a different tune. Of course it would. No one expected the USA to win, but Spain were one of the favorites. Spain were supposed to be the standard bearers of technical football, but did it come to the fore very often? If so, I didn’t see it, I mean, really, they beat Germany on a corner kick. Does Spain care? No, they do not care because they get to be the World Cup Champions for the next four years, until Brazil 2014.
Lessons to be taken away from South Africa are many. Spain played a team essentially made from two club sides: Barcelona (Valdes, Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Villa, Pedro) and Real Madrid (Casillas, Albiol, Ramos, Arbeloa, Alonso.) Fabregas is of course Arsenal, and Torres is Liverpool, but both of those guys spent more time on the bench. Will national football directors realize the importance of homegrown talent? Will they pick sides with players who play alongside each other every week or will they continue to make the mistake of England and pick an all-star team of egomaniacs? Germany’s poor showing in the Euros in 2004 spurred them to hire Jurgen Klinsmann to come in and redesign the youth setup. We are seeing this plan come to fruition. Of all the top leagues, Germany’s is nearly alone in being properly managed and debt-free. England and Spain are drowning in a sea of red. Importing talented foreigners is great for revenue but not great for the local game. As this World Cup sails off over the horizon and another four years separate us from our fevered dreams, I am left hoping that Spain’s patient style and Brazil’s defensive mindedness become relegated to the dustbin. Sitting back sucks. Killing the game, literally, kills the game. Diving and fouling have got to be curtailed. Goal line technology is a must at this level. Let the next World Cup thrill us in every match, not just the final, and may fortune favor those who risk and dare to lay it all on the line, for only in daring it all do we ever see the beautiful game.