Like all summer romances, this one too has come to an end. Spain are now the reigning European and World Champions. By virtue of four 1-0 victories in the knock-out stages and scoring only 8 goals in total they become the lowest scoring side ever to win a World Cup. The real story lies in how they dominated possession and controlled the play. They completed more passes than any other team in a World Cup since 1966, and Xavi Hernandez himself made 599 successful passes, again the most by any player since 1966.
In the semi-finals Joachim Löw’s admirable German team tried to play football against Spain, and were beaten at the same game by the best footballing side in the world. In the final the Dutch tried another tactic, by attempting to disrupt the rhythm of the Spanish by fouling, pressing and harrying. When Spain’s attacks broke down the Netherlands were quick to launch their own. Arjen Robben on the right flank made life difficult for Joan Capdevilla, as he has for every left back he has faced in this tournament. Robben is one of the finest attacking players in the modern game but he can be equally frustrating. After beating Puyol to the ball and then beating him for pace despite Puyol’s attempt to drag him down he was one-on-one with Iker Casillas, he sent the keeper the wrong way but hit his outstretched leg. Spain lost their opening game, conceding to the Swiss and finding themselves unable prise open a stubborn defence. If Robben had scored it is likely that again Spain wouldn’t have found a way back into the game and Bert van Marwijk would have been praised for finding a way to counter Spain’s possession-based football. As it was Robben didn’t score and Iniesta did, and this should be seen as a victory for the beautiful game.
This final had 14 yellow cards and 1 red, far more than any other final, and the overwhelming majority went to the Dutch. Jonny Heitinga was sent off extra time and Nigel de Jong would probably have gone in the first half if this game wasn’t the World Cup Final. His studs-up challange into the chest of Xabi Alonso was brutal, referee Howard Webb should have sent him off. If he had it would have changed the game no doubt but maybe it would have calmed the Dutch down and led to less violent play and a more open game. Spain were worthy of the win as they at least tried to play a game based on their own strengths and not one based on nullifying the opposition. Spain didn’t set this tournament alight but they deserve this win for simply being the best team in world football over the last 3 years. They become only the second team to be the European Champions and World Champions at the same time.
Much will be made of how the Spain team that started the final contained 6 Barcelona players (7 if you include David Villa who has signed but not yet played and 8 with Cesc Fabregas who came on later and was a Barca youth player and will probably also re-sign with them this close season). Spain’s football is Barcelona’s football. Barcelona owe much of their footballing style to their Dutch connections. 9 of their 20 league titles were won under Dutch managers, and the father of “Total Football” Rinus Michels was the first of these. His innovative ideas of players switching position and how to create and control space on the field transformed Ajax and after winning the European Cup in 1971 he brought Total Football to Barcelona. Though football has changed since the 1970’s and neither Barcelona nor Spain play Michel’s total football in exactly the same way, the club side and the national side owe a great debt to Dutch football and are probably the closest modern examples of this kind of play.
In winning this game Spain became the first European side to win the cup outside of Europe, the Netherlands will need to wait for 4 more years to try to win their first when the World Cup will be held in Brazil.
The Golden Ball award for player of the tournament was given to Diego Forlán, I would go along with this. He has been excellent, and one of the only players to be able to control the Jabulani from long range. By my reckoning he was marginally better than Xavi, Iniesta and Thomas Müller, the winner of the Golden Boot.
Even though the final wasn’t great I have enjoyed the World Cup immensely and much praise has to be given to South Africa for organising the first tournament on the African continent. There are now 34 days until the beginning of the English Premier League, time to concentrate on another great sporting event, Le Tour and the National League West leading San Diego Padres.
Mainly it will be time to see what will become of my first sporting love, Liverpool FC, after the exoticism of this World Cup summer romance has faded Liverpool will be there and in much need of support.