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July 11, 2010

It's not easy being the king

Hill By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com
(Archive)

JOHANNESBURG -- This was supposed to be a stylish World Cup. Instead, we got substance.

Ugly substance, at that.

Spain, the team that chugged and gritted its way through the entire World Cup, defeated the Netherlands 1-0 on Sunday to win the country's first World Cup and become the first European team to win a World Cup outside of Europe.

Spain wasn't quite an unlikely winner, but there's no question this World Cup didn't exactly go as advertised.

No Brazil. No Argentina. No Portugal. No England. No Italy. No France. And if you watched Spain throughout the tournament, you're not underestimating the Spaniards by thinking it's somewhat surprising that they would be hoisting the gold trophy.

This was a team that didn't really wow throughout the tournament. This was not a glamour team, rather one that valued possession more than scoring.

New motto: Defense doesn't win championships, possession does.

While the Germans impressed with their goal frenzy and Uruguay's Diego Forlan cemented himself as the winner of Golden Ball with fantastic goals, there was good-old-reliable, often-clunky Spain.

It was a difficult road for the Spanish, and a lot of times by their own doing. They lost to the Swiss in their first match, which means they are the first World Cup winner to lose their opening game. They scored eight goals in this entire tournament. Eight! No other World Cup winner had scored fewer goals. That makes Germany's Thomas Muller, who had five goals by himself, look downright selfish.

And there seemed to be three things you could count on in this World Cup -- Diego Maradona being quotable, Wayne Rooney not scoring and Spain winning 1-0, which it did against its last four opponents.

Substance over style.

Spain's victory over the Dutch -- which marks the third time the Netherlands has gone home as a runner-up -- was the perfect snapshot of how Spain has been in South Africa. The Spaniards possessed the ball at a 63 percent clip. They frustrated the Dutch, who showed their ugly side on multiple fouls. There were 14 yellow cards assessed, the most ever in a final, and it played into Spain's hands. And just when the crowd was strangely quiet, when you couldn't tell if it was vuvuzelas blowing or people snoring, when there was a worldwide frustration at watching these two teams sail strikes everywhere but the net, here came Spain's Andres Iniesta with the game-winning strike with four minutes left in extra time.

That's Spain.

There will be a lot of complaining today about the final, which other than a few special minutes lacked the sizzle and tension that one hopes for in a game of this magnitude. Many will think about the wondrous third-place game played between Uruguay and Germany and say if the Germans had been in the final, it would have been magical. And, of course, other naysayers will point to the Spain-Netherlands final as evidence that soccer will always be one gigantic turn-off in the United States, even though an estimated 700 million people worldwide watched this very un-beautiful match.

But if anything, Spain's style should be embraced, not subjected to criticism. As we saw throughout the World Cup, the stylish teams went home, one by one, because they couldn't do what Spain did. Love or hate the Spaniards, they were unerringly consistent, even when being inconsistent. Spain allowed two goals this World Cup, which ties the record for fewest by a champion. Throughout the tournament, the Spaniards forced everyone to play their clunky game. They imposed their style and their lack of goals, of beauty, is a non-issue.

Because, today, they are the winners of the World Cup. That's all that matters.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.