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July 7, 2010

Guts and glory for Spain

Bradley By Jeff Bradley
ESPN The Magazine

DURBAN, South Africa -- For much of this tournament it's been considered a struggling team. This is Spain? Really? Losing to Switzerland? Unable to dismantle Honduras? Letting Chile hang around until the end? And that was just in the group stage.

In the knockout round, although the slick Spaniards zigged and zagged their way in and around Portugal, they were unable to unlock the goal until late. And then against Paraguay, they had to survive a missed penalty before escaping with a 1-0 victory.

But sometimes it's these types of brutal games, these 90-minute battles where there's no let-up in intensity, that bond players, turn them into brothers who revel in doing the dirty work.

And so tonight at Durban Stadium, it was a Spanish team, one with chips on the shoulders of its extraordinarily rich and talented players, that came to continue its World Cup mission. Spain played a German team that had become the darling of South Africa 2010 for its high-scoring victories and precision attacking play. But the team known as La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) didn't care how it looked.

All that mattered was winning and pushing its country to its first-ever World Cup final. Some 30 minutes after the final whistle had sounded and Spain had taken down Germany, 1-0, Spain's fans continued to sing and dance in the corner of the stadium, waving their flags and not wanting to head for the exits, clearly enjoying the taste of victory achieved through pure guts and determination. Mental toughness, never a trait associated with Spanish teams in the past, is what carried this one through this time.

There's no escaping the irony that the Germans were on the losing end of this tactical struggle. After all, winning the 1-0 chess match is what has defined Germany's World Cup success for more than three decades. You want to beat the Germans, you better take them down early, because they'll wear you down eventually. They'll out-tough you.

Not this time. Fittingly, as if it was playing the role of Germany to perfection, Spain's goal came off a set piece, a well-taken corner kick by Xavi that was met some 10 yards from the net by the head of 31-year-old defender Carles Puyol. The center back powered the ball past German keeper Manuel Neuer in the 73rd minute and it was well-deserved. Though neither team had conceded much in the way of chances in the first half, it was Spain that was pushing the game after the break. And once the Spanish scored, you could sense a burden had been lifted. For the rest of the match, Spain let the ball do the work, wonderfully pulling the hardworking Germans into traffic, then releasing the ball into space.

The stars were now out. You had the Barcelona contingent, led by Xavi, Pedro and Iniesta. You had the Real Madrid boys, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos. And, of course, you had David Villa, to this point the best striker in the competition.

"We know we're in good shape," manager Vicente del Bosque had said Thursday. "It's been more than 30 days together training as a team and I think these players want to make history."

And while it seemed the world wanted to make Spain the underdog against Germany's fresh-faced squad, this was the champion of Europe in 2008. This was a team that during the course of tonight's match completed its 3,000th pass in the tournament -- leaving it second only to the 1994 Brazil squad in passes completed since they started tracking the stat in 1966.

Yes, this was Spain, the team that plays as beautiful a game as any in the world.

These were the players who came to South Africa as the co-favorites, with Brazil, to take the title. They were just winning the hard way.

And they'll gladly do it one more time.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.