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Thursday, July 8, 2010
Where angels fear to head

Phil Ball

So Spain are really through, this time to a stage onto which they have never climbed before. The TV5 coverage was almost restrained in its post-match reaction, as if the fact had not truly sunken in. • Germany 0-1 Spain: Report
• Lahm frustrated, Low gracious
• Brewin: Puyol ensures progress
• Del Bosque hails 'extraordinary' Spain
• Blog: Spain through in style
• Gallery Photo Gallery But it's more than that. When you look back at Spain's footballing history, from the sepia shots of the 1920s Belgian Olympics, when the team travelled abroad for the first time, through the bloody battles of the 1930s, to the black and white shot of Zarra's goal against England in 1950, through the national humiliation of 1982 to the broken nose of Luis Enrique in 1994 and then to the scenes of manager Camacho restraining his players after the quarter-final defeat to South Korea, it represents ninety years of underachievement, ninety years of either messing up or just being plain unlucky, until two years ago, of course. Winning the European Championships in 2008 broke the strange curse that seemed to plague the squad, a curse that had forever rendered them prone to freezing on the big stage, at the moments when it mattered most. It had become such a well-known national feature that the air seemed to breathe it as a truth, as something that was just a part of Spain, like bullfighting and tapas. But just as the Plaza de Toros and the tapas are in fact a poor representation of what Spain really is, so now the idea of quarter-final chokers is finally laid to rest. If Spain fail to beat the Netherlands on Sunday evening in Johannesburg there will be disappointment but also satisfaction that this squad has proved what everyone thought it could prove - that the 'dark horse' days are gone. And like their opponents on Sunday, who have also suffered in the past from internal squabbling and a well-earned reputation for shooting themselves in their kicking feet, the South African tournament has been almost mystical in its tension-free atmosphere. Carles Puyol, whom Radio Marca's commentator called 'Carlos' in the immediate aftermath of his 60 second 'Goooooool de Espaņa!' roar, will probably forgive the mispronunciation this time around. In the most apolitical of tournaments for decades, the Spanish squad has been eerily matey, and Puyol's popularity among his team-mates was clear to see, both after the goal and during the post-match celebrations. Never really much of a Catalanista, his views hold no threats for his squad mates, and his easier-going social demeanour was always less threatening in dressing-room terms than that of the exiled king Raul. Now Puyol has scored an historic goal, bizarrely only his third in 89 internationals. Talk about saving the best for later. His thumping header after 73 minutes broke the German resistance, and despite an inevitable late flurry by their opponents, the goal always looked as though it would be enough for Spain. Indeed, it should have been two if Pedro had not been caught in three minds, eventually losing the ball when a simple pass to sub Fernando Torres would have probably sealed the game. He will have been relieved at the final whistle, but the young Barcelona player, on from the start in place of Torres, in fact played very well, and caught Germany cold with his movement and speed, especially in the first half. His presence in the starting line-up was a surprise, given that the Spanish press had been announcing for several days that Torres was going to start, despite the signs that Vicente Del Bosque had finally decided to bite the bullet and drop his out-of-form striker. If this was a deliberate tactic by the press to fool their opponents, then it paid off quite well with the Germans visibly panicking at yet another player whose movement and touch looked every bit as good as those of Andres Iniesta. Although the game had its moments, it wasn't the most exciting of semi-finals. The previous evening's fare eventually proved to have more mass appeal, whereas this one turned out to be more a duel for the purists. Perhaps that was always going to happen. People will talk about the Spanish retaining possession, but it was only 51%, - hardly overwhelming. The most important conclusion to squeeze from the stats was that from such marginally higher possession, Spain managed thirteen shots, to Germany's five. Nevertheless, for all Spain's insistence on sticking to their tiki-taka guns, and playing their way out of a nervous-looking opening phase, they eventually made it to a World Cup final via an old-fashioned display of physical power, with Puyol flying in where angels fear to head. Germany seemed to miss Thomas Muller as much as they seemed to be suffering from the 'German' octopus Paul's unpatriotic prediction that Spain would win. Despite the fact that he got it wrong for the Spain v Germany final two years ago, you would have to put that down to youth and inexperience. This time he got it right, picking Spain in the face of a much-vaunted general view that Germany would win. At street level here in Spain, plenty of people thought so too. The Germans seemed to be working up their mojo, and were shaping up to ask new questions of the Spanish defence, a la Argentina, but the predicted collapse never came. Puyol and Pique never flinched, and even 'crazy horse' Sergio Ramos was occasionally seen wandering into the defensive zone. Most of the time he appeared to be playing centre-forward, but the force seems to be with this nominal full-back for this tournament. He is certainly a more effective tactical spoke in the team's wheel than was Jesus Navas, whose early introduction into the side in the group stage unbalanced the methodical pass-and-go approach and seemed to throw Xavi off his stride. That Del Bosque was big enough to retract his decision to introduce the Sevilla winger in the first two starting line-ups is eventual proof of the unsmiling one's quiet intelligence. He may have taken too long over doing the same with Torres, but in the end his team are in the final, and he has presided over potentially its finest hour. Former manager Luis Aragones takes a lot of the credit for finally breaking through the choker's barrier and convincing his side they could win (although at times he seemed to doubt it himself), and Vicente Del Bosque has not tampered too much with his inheritance. If Spain win, history will crown the two of them, but Del Bosque will finally get to point a quiet finger in the direction of Florentino Perez at Real Madrid, the president who dumped him in favour of the sparkling new galactic era. Spain only wobbled once, when Toni Kroos was played in on the right with the Spanish left-flank missing in action, only for Iker Casillas to pull off a smart save from a shot that nevertheless lacked conviction. Spain seemed to threaten more significantly as the game went on, with two smart shots from Xabi Alonso only just creeping wide, and Germany's counter-attacks floundering on Spain's high line. Bastian Schweinsteiger never got to dictate the tempo of the game as he did against Argentina, largely because he never really had the ball long enough or consistently enough to do so. Therein lies the Spanish magic, and the Netherlands would do well to take note. The Dutch will fancy their chances too, as if destiny has brought them here to avenge the traumas of the 1974 and 1978 finals. Everything has gone right for them so far and both Wesley Sjneider and Arjen Robben will be keen on proving their Spanish critics wrong, as will Klass-Jan Huntelaar, if he gets a game. There's plenty of time to reflect on the match before Sunday, but it promises to be an attractive affair, with the Dutch mindful of the fact that they will need to take the initiative, and tighten up at the back too. Meanwhile, Spain celebrates its new-found solidity, its ability to deliver. Several individual Spanish sports celebrities have shown these virtues in recent times, so now it's the turn of the collective. If they can just keep their nerve on Sunday night, 22 days after such a stuttering start, Spain's greatest generation of footballers stands on the brink of something approaching immortality. The folks are still celebrating around Spain as I write, and they haven't won anything yet. But being in the final has a feel-good factor about it that is difficult to suppress, and for once the buzz seems to be country-wide. It's strange, but it's nice too.

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