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World Cup post-mortem part 3: The Final: Spain’s fear, Holland’s fouls July 11, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in World Cup 2010.
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Somewhat unfairly, the name of the 2010 World Cup final will become a byword for infamy, it seems. Certainly, with the first word having come from the Guardian’s puzzlingly influential Richard Williams, it seems likely the red card for Johnny Heitinga and the cynical fouls of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong will be the salient images of the match.

In a way, that’s only fair. After all, at the very least, this final dispensed decisively with two myths of international football: the Dutch national team’s penchant for winning friends with attractive soccer and the exhilarating football played by the Spanish national team. The less mystique that surrounds teams inappropriately, the better, I think. Now, if only someone could ram it into the international zeitgeist that Brazil has actually spent much of the time since 1982 playing functional, sexless soccer, and that that isn’t Dunga’s fault, we’d be truly refreshed.

It’s also unfair, though. A friend of mine who could only catch the end of the second half and the extra period sent me a text message calling it “a fun game to watch.” When I accused her of sarcasm, she was genuinely confused. “I thought it was really exciting and fun to watch!” And this is someone who has never watched a soccer match before. So much for turning off the Americans wooed by this World Cup.

It really did become more exciting, too, once Vicente del Bosque introduced Cesc Fabregas into the lineup. Suddenly, he stumbled upon the midfield he should have been using throughout the entire tournament: one with Fabregas and Xavi in front of Sergio Busquets in the center. Fabregas gave Spain the pinch of penetration in the center it has lacked throughout the tournament. I mean, if Busquets as the lone defensive midfielder is good enough for Barcelona, it’s probably good enough for Spain.

Spain was genuinely attractive between the introduction of Fabregas and Fernando Torres’ injury. There was also intrigue and the very satisfying departure of a Dutch player, even if Heitinga was one of the least dirty Dutchmen on the pitch.

Williams is, however, correct in his lament: “No more all-European finals, thank you very much.” As I’ve said before, all the romance is taken out of the World Cup when the teams from the other continents are eliminated. This final contained 10 starting players who have, at one point or another, been under contract at Barcelona, plus the substitute Fabregas. Soul-crushing, if you ask me, and I’m a Barcelona fan. More than half of the starting 22 have played in Champions League finals. These are the usual suspects from a tournament that usually turns up so much more that is memorable.

That wasn’t the fault of the final game itself, and the American television commentators didn’t help by banging on about how boring it all was. It was the fault of a poor call between Brazil and the Netherlands that gave the Dutch a game-winning free kick, a bat off the line by Luis Suarez, the failure to allow Paraguay to retake a spot-kick against Spain, the award of a pretty dubious goal for Argentina against Mexico. Arguably at least. It’s been a World Cup of disappointments, sure, but it’s had its moments. We just chose to accentuate the negative.

As it is, though Spain has confirmed its newfound emergence as a legitimate soccer power with its victory, it would be only just to remember Luis Aragones’ European Championship-winning side of two years ago as a better football team. Carlos Marchena may not be or have been as immaculate a central defender as Gerard Pique, but Spain would have looked much better with an on-form Marcos Senna’s balls (and I don’t mean “passes”) in midfield and the terrifying prospect of a fit Torres leading the line, not to mention a more dynamic David Silva rather than the incomplete Jesus Navas or the schizophrenic Pedro. Spain 2008 simply had more style than Spain 2010, more elegance. The current Spain is attritional.

It’s as if the current Spaniards spent the tournament living cowering under the weight of their two-year-old legacy. All, that is, except the perpetually fearless Carles Puyol and, Andres Iniesta once he somehow managed to liberate his soul as the final drew to a close.

Which Spain will arrive in Poland and Ukraine in two years? That could be the most interesting story in international soccer in the coming years.

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