This time for Spain?

The Spanish players had been fortified by winning the major trophies of the previous two seasons. Spain’s greatest generation went to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with high hopes and favourite’s status. They proceeded to play a terrible tournament by their high standards, particularly mediocre against Switzerland, Chile and Paraguay. Spain unbelievably lost their first game to Switzerland 1-0. It was a bizarre travesty of a result, of course, Switzerland only getting the ball down twice for the entire match, and the goal itself was a comedy of rebounds and errors. However, intelligent analyst Michael Cox pointed to a lack of width in Spain’s formation, indicating that it couldn’t completely be put down to fluke. There was something wrong with Spain. Torres had previously been injured and was never the same player afterwards, carried and pampered through this World Cup to Spain’s detriment. Iniesta had also been nursing an injury and Xavi was oddly out of form for the first time in at least two years. His personal tournament was a shadow of what he’d achieved in 2008.

Spain faced elimination in match three against the high-strung Chile. Chile became the only team in three tournaments to boss Spain around on possession and field position, but Chile’s all-out attack conceded two goals at the back and Spain lived. The opening goal, a fortunate aberration given the way the game had been going, had seen the Chilean keeper come out to sweep clear – only for Spain forward-cum-left winger David Villa to put the ricochet from forty metres into the open net.

Mesut Ozil and the German revolution

France in 1998 had taught us that it was a mistake to draw larger sociological conclusions from a mere football team, their black-blanc-beur team winning the World Cup only a few years before the disintegration into racial anarchy of the ghettoes that those players had hailed from. Nonetheless, Germany in 2010 featured a new star who rewrote the world’s opinion of what it meant to be a German player and perhaps what it meant to be German. Mesut Ozil, the son of Turkish stock, was at the forefront of the new wave of German reinforcements. He was a pure passer, an attacking playmaker who could pop up anywhere on a field to help maintain the flow of a match, much like Zidane or Xavi but not always as central.

In defensive midfield Ballack had sadly been injured in his last match before the World Cup, but it opened the door for Sami Khedira to form a partnership with the maturing Bastian Schweinsteiger, in 2006 an inconsistent winger but in 2010 a finished all-purpose central midfielder. Goal-scoring right-forward Thomas Muller, whom pre-tournament no one had heard of, would unbelievably win the Golden Boot with five goals and three assists. To the left of support forwards Ozil and Muller was Lucas Podolski, who had been a straight forward in 2006 and had been the beginning of the revolution now aflame in 2010. Up front was the ageless, ever consistent Miroslav Klose, who after hauls of five and five in the previous two World Cups would bag four here from only four and a bit matches, agonisingly falling one short of Ronaldo’s record of fifteen goals in all World Cup competitions. But he unexpectedly soldiered on afterwards until that nagging regret had been rectified.

Germany temporarily stuttered in the group stage, even losing game two to Serbia, but the team came into their own as a counterattacking force in the knockout rounds. Against England and Argentina Germany scored four goals each, taking England apart 4-1 – not without controversy, a tying goal for England bouncing blatantly behind the goal line but not counted – and then creaming Argentina 4-0 in the quarter-finals, for whom Messi would prominently feature but not score any goals at South Africa 2010. Germany’s three final goals against Argentina were identical and cleanly artistic, raids down the left by Podolski, Schweinsteiger and Ozil respectively tapped home by Klose, defender Freidrich and Klose. Germany, like Czech Republic in 2004 and Holland in 2000 were cresting in a wave never seen before, much expected to go on and finish as the tournament’s champions. Like those other teams, the wave unexpectedly broke in the semi-finals.

Sneijder, Robben, Holland

Unlike their spectacular opening to Euro 2008, Holland won a series of low-key matches leading up to the quarter-final grudge showdown against Brazil. Sneijder, of course in form from being The Man for Champions League-winning Inter, contributed an odd series of deflected goals, ending up as one of the joint top scorers of the tournament (as a midfielder!). Holland were playing a waiting game until the third match when Robben would come back from one of his perennial injuries. He did, and scored the winning goal in the second round against Slovakia, who had played above themselves to inflict an epic 3-2 defeat of Italy in the group. In the new fashion for Bayern Munich wingers were beginning to be stationed on their opposite sides, looking to cut in and shoot, an innovation called “inverted wingers”. It had turned Robben one-dimensional. He would receive on the right, cut in laterally and look to shoot on the left – every single time. It worked against Cameroon and Slovakia. By the final Spain were triple-teaming his left side along the edge of the penalty box.

Besides these three teams it was a terrible tournament for Europe and a terrific one for South America, although all of South America’s teams would eventually fall to those three European standard-bearers anyway. Brazil appeared to be the champions-in-waiting of World Cup 2010. They had worked out a 2010 version of the 3 Rs, not as supreme or famous as the 2002 version but almost as functional. Luis Fabiano was ‘Ronaldo’, the pure goal scorer; Robinho was the running go-between who shuffled between the forward line and elsewhere, scoring with complete assurance against Chile and Holland. Kaka had temporarily revived his career to play the role he always had, the languid playmaking attacking central mid.

The quarter-finals of wrath

All four quarter-finals set off a series of what-the-hell events that were probably the standout moments of the World Cup. Holland, somewhat disjointed but whose two superstars were coming through in the crunch, had lost the 1994 and 1998 World Cups to Brazil in increasingly excruciating circumstances, and conceded a quick goal to Robinho ten minutes in. Holland clung on until halftime, then out of nowhere inflicted the defeat that they had been waiting for for years. Brazil simply self-destructed in an almost accidental defeat, scoring an own goal and then allowing the smallest man on the pitch, Sneijder, to nod in from Kuyt’s corner kick flick-on twenty minutes from the end. The best part of the game was the scoreless last twenty minutes: unlike 2006 Brazil fought to the end, the desperate ending a series of chances missed for Holland and saved against Brazil. Dirk Kuyt failed on an agonising slow-motion dribble. Kaka ran half the field to almost score. Brazil had no one to bring on to reverse the result, not having budgeted for this situation. The final scenes were almost legendary: Robben and the team embracing in ecstasy, Kaka walking away from relevance for the last time, the doomed-and-he-knew-it coach Dunga standing there in shock.

That night Asamoah Gyan lined up for a 120th-minute penalty that would put a young, unknown Ghana into the semi-finals of what had become a de facto home tournament in South Africa. The last play of a 1-1 draw had been an almighty scramble in Ghana’s attacking goalmouth, in which Uruguay forward Luis Suarez became an impromptu keeper, committing a (red carded) handball that temporarily saved Uruguay on the line in the last second. Gyan, the literal and figurative Black Star who had converted two other penalties in the tournament, rushed his kick and hit the top of the crossbar. Game over even before the penalty shootout began for the buoyed Uruguay and demoralised Ghana, for whom Gyan immediately put their first penalty into the top corner in an ironic, brave and futile riposte. The handball provoked a torrent of bitter commentary – Uruguay had arguably cheated their way to the semi-final; to others, Suarez had simply done what anyone choosing survival had to do – and young Domenic Adiyiah, who but for the handball would have scored the most important goal in African football history, merely became the bum who ten minutes later missed the losing penalty. He had been the lynchpin of Ghana’s World Youth Cup triumph that same year, but after this his career now stalled on the grid and he was never mentioned again.

Uruguay were a solid, adaptable, slightly defensive team, of whom it was written afterwards that at the World Cup they always had less possession but more shots on goal than the opposition, something of a tactical triumph. They would follow up to win the 2011 Copa America. Diego Forlan, fresh from leading Atletico Madrid to the UEFA Cup, played an incredible World Cup and was rightly awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. He scored all types of goals – three long shots (the experimental Jabulani ball made such shooting prohibitive for everyone else), a top-corner penalty and the final seal, his acrobat scissored volley against Germany.

It was a prolific tournament for individual goal scorers in an era that was terrible for them, as characterised by the strikerless success that was Spain 2012. In 2006 only Klose scored more than three goals; in 2008 only Villa did with four early ones; and in 2012 no one at all. But in 2010 Muller, Villa, Sneijder (debatably) and Forlan all ended up with five, Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain, Klose and Slovakia’s Robert Vittek all got four. Forlan, Sneijder and Villa – who scored five of Spain’s first six goals – were all individually responsible for dragging their teams upward to glory and would respectively win the Gold, Silver and Bronze Ball as the tournament’s best players, an award that for once was not simply a popularity contest in the vein of Ronaldo, Zidane and Messi. The quantifiable award, the Golden Boot goalscoring title, Forlan would miss by centimetres after hitting the crossbar with the last kick of Uruguay’s World Cup.

The next day Germany delivered the 4-0 over Argentina, who were top-heavy with forwards but had no one to help out behind the scenes. It was a result that (only) at that moment seemed so momentous that Brian Phillips suggested it might last into eternity (“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/4-0”). Spain then met Paraguay. On paper it was a terrible mismatch, not helped by the fact that Paraguay’s ‘brain’ Salvador Cabanas had received a bullet to the head in Mexico at the beginning of the year and, fighting for life, would not play for Paraguay again. Spain, however, played the worst game of their already terrible tournament.

The match is remembered for both teams missing a penalty in the same minute. First Casillas stopped Oscar Cardozo’s unimaginative wack to the low right, the opposite of his supremely assured snoozy roll to the left to win Paraguay’s shootout against Japan. Seconds later Xabi Alonso’s retaken penalty was brilliantly saved by Paraguay’s Justo Villar, who then took down the advancing Cesc on the rebound and Spain’s follow-up was cleared off the line. The referee couldn’t be bothered giving a penalty on top of a penalty (and on top of Xabi Alonso’s first successful penalty, on top of Paraguay’s penalty). Still, Paraguay had blown the chance to win the biggest match of their history in a game they had largely outhustled Spain.

A new champion

European Champions Spain were forgotten amid Germanymania, most observers hanging on for the intriguing final in which a Dutch Germany would take on a German Holland. But Spain finally got it all together in the semi-finals, winning their standard dominant/featureless 1-0 passfest over Germany. It was a carbon copy of the Euro 2008 final. Muller’s suspension may have cost Germany, or perhaps it may not have made the slightest bit of difference against the red sleeper-hold. Germany were a different, lost team from the effervescent one of the 4-1 and 4-0 romps. They couldn’t put anything together against the Spanish machine and were shockingly going to lose even before conceding the winning goal, a moment that when it finally happened was almost irrelevant. Puyol’s header from a corner merely mathematically confirmed the death by a thousand cuts.

Therein lay the difference between the two teams in the final. Spain had to constantly work for a full 90 minutes for the prize of one solitary goal – they had scored a record low seven in six matches (the same as effervescent paragon Greece in 2004). Holland in the shape of Sneijder saw them fly in, whether they were playing well or not.

Yet it was Spain who were now favourites despite only having played one great match all tournament. On paper this could have been a classic encounter: two countries with a tradition of futile but lovely attacking football each given a chance to win their first World Cup against each other. In the event the match became a reference point for everything that is wrong or disagreeable about football.

Spain came out firing in the first fifteen minutes and Holland consequently changed gears, making the match a long, drawn out argument filled with small fouls, and big ones in the case of De Jong putting his foot into Xabi Alonso’s chest. It worked to the extent that, even though the force was slightly with Spain, the two best chances to win the game were Holland’s. Twice Robben found himself one-on-one with Iker Casillas. The first time Robben’s shot was fortuitously saved by Casillas’ foot, which no one would ever let Robben forget afterwards; the second time Robben was all but hauled down by last man Puyol, a red card offence not even judged a foul. Holland’s approach was personified by Mark Van Bommel in the middle, who would foul and then have a manipulative chat with the ref, avoiding a yellow card, and then repeat, and then repeat.

But the studs-up game that Holland played was eventually their downfall. After Spain had regained control in extra time and missed chances to win, a long overdue Holland red card decided the match for the goal-shy Spain. A few minutes before the penalties Spain finally strung a move together with a long, culminating build-up that resulted in Iniesta finding himself in, and he drilled home. He touchingly pulled up his shirt to reveal the message, ‘Dani Jarque, Always With Us’, a Spaniard who had died on field of a heart defect.

That was the only redeeming feature of the match, and even that got Iniesta a yellow card, one of fourteen for the match (nine Holland). Spain won the World Cup having only scored eight goals in seven games, smashing the previous record low of eleven, a statistically fascinating achievement. Each of their four knockout matches had finished 1-0 after an extended 0-0 stalemate. Their obsessive ball manipulation, while nominally attacking in scope and territory, had proven more effective as an indirect defence, because a team who can’t get the ball can’t launch attacks and score goals.

Germany had scored exactly double their goals, sixteen. For the World Cup in general, a terrible group stage and opening week in particular had briefly indicated the death of football, but a quick glance at the matches of the knockout rounds reveals that all of those games had been quite interesting, except for the ones in which Spain were involved. In any case, the revisionist reading was that of course Spain won, they were the best team.

Marty Gleason

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