Celebrating the Spanish dynasty
The most beautiful words in Spain today are "uno-cero," 1-0, the magical score line for each of La Furia Roja's last four victories in the World Cup. Portugal and Paraguay were overmatched, while the youthful Germans were simply overwhelmed by the prospect of playing a team that could hold onto the ball as if it were velcroed to its feet. But the tough-minded Dutch, playing in front of what was essentially a home crowd, didn't come to Soccer City with a just-glad-to-be-on-the-same-field-with-the-mythic-pass-masters attitude. To win this match and finally exorcise the curse of perennial underachievers on soccer's biggest stage, the Spanish would have to overcome boot-to-the-sternum tackles while containing a team on a 25-match unbeaten streak that possessed a swagger equal to their own.
History will show that Spain won the 2010 final on a brilliant piece of technical skill by Andres Iniesta, the Robin to Xavi's Batman. But what is frustrating -- not to mention scary for the rest of the soccer world -- is that we saw only a tantalizing glimpse of how beguiling the Spanish game can be. The team that claimed the Euro championship in 2008 did so with a mixture of disdain and fluidity that heralded the birth of a potent new brand of soccer.
The 2010 version of La Furia Roja didn't place their cleats on the throat of this tournament, as much as they tap danced their way through it like a one-legged man in a minefield. Whether it was the opening slip-up against Switzerland, the strain of expectations that this World Cup was their manifest destiny, or the replacing of 2008 coach Luis Aragones with the relentlessly dour Vincente del Bosque, Spain was unable to raise its game to the lyrical heights of Euro, no matter how stylish its buildup play was.
The abiding hope was that the Dutch, with their own history of passing artistry and a turbo-charged attack that had scored an impressive 11 goals going into the final, would force Spain to shift into a higher gear. And yet, I can't remember when we saw such a hideous first half played by teams from which so much was expected.
Some of that is easily explained away -- not only are the stakes the highest the sport can offer, but also both sides had previously started slowly in their big World Cup matches. Beyond that, the Oranje were never going to let Spain vivisect them with its intricate triangles, and so they adopted a "maul first, get the ball later" approach that effectively dared the Spaniards to pass while being splattered all over the field. After four bookings in the first 22 minutes, I thought we were witnessing the sequel to Holland's infamous 1-0 loss to Portugal in the last World Cup, a historic orgy of bad behavior in which the referee handed out 16 yellows and four reds.
In that game, Holland's midfield enforcer, Mark Van Pummel -- sorry, Van Bommel -- was booked for a studs-up tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo 95 seconds after kickoff. This time, referee Howard Webb was downright Zen with the hard-charging Dutchman, waiting 'til the 22nd minute, after Van Bommel buzz sawed Xavi, to finally show him a yellow. The English referee, a part-time Yorkshire police sergeant, then acted as if he had a quota to meet, brandishing cards with the joyful abandon that you could only wish had been shared by the players themselves.
When a soccer game occasionally broke out amid the kung fu festival, the Spanish continued to display unwavering belief in their superior technique -- no passing lane was too narrow for Xavi, no space too tight for Iniesta to wriggle out of. But for most of the match, it was the Dutch, specifically Arjen Robben, who looked more likely to score.
Robben is one of the most electric players in the game but it's his speed and guile more than his temperament that is his great strength. Twice faced with opportunities to be the Dutch savior, his composure betrayed him. The first time, he ran onto a defense-splitting pass from Wesley Sneijder and bore down on the onrushing Iker Casillas, as 100,000 Spanish fans in Madrid reached for their collective rosary beads. Robben shot low to Casillas' left as the Spanish keeper dove to his right. The Spanish plea for divine intervention was answered, as the ball found the outside of the clueless Casillas' trailing boot to drift harmlessly wide of the post.
In the 83rd minute, Robben was set free again by Sneijder and got a half-step in the box on Carles Puyol, who, if he got any closer -- for a second, his arm was around the Dutchman's waist -- would have been arrested on a morals charge. Puyol was able to jostle Robben just enough to cause him to lose control and allow Casillas to smother the ball. When Robben immediately got up in Webb's grill, screaming for a penalty, he, too, was booked.
By resorting to brutish physical tactics, the Dutch had hoped to take the Spaniards out of their carefully calibrated rhythm, and for 116 minutes it worked, even if it made for some ugly soccer. But in the end, Spain simply had too much poise and skill. And when Cesc Fabregas, who came on as a substitute late in regulation and re-energized the midfield, rolled the ball into the path of Iniesta, the best player on the field Sunday calmly lashed a fierce side volley into the far corner of the net.
So the Spaniards are campeones del mundo for the next four years. And while I haven't talked to Paul the Octopus lately, I'm guessing he likes Spain's chances in 2014.
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."