The only one who emerges from this World Cup unbeaten is Paul the Octopus. Congratulations!
Congratulations, too, to Spain, who won the European championship two years ago and now are world champions as well. Seven nations are widely considered to be soccer’s superpowers (Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, and the vanquished Netherlands), but now we must admit Spain into their company. Their country is going through some tough economic times, but they have their sports success to keep their heads up.
The winning goal in the final was scored by Andrés Iniesta, the small, quick FC Barcelona attacking midfielder. Maybe the most moving moment at this World Cup was immediately afterward, when he took his jersey off to celebrate the goal and revealed an undershirt with the handwritten words “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros.” Jarque was a central defender and team captain of FC Barcelona’s cross-town rivals Espanyol Barcelona. Last year, Jarque died of a heart attack at age 26. Espanyol’s whole reason for being is hatred of FC Barcelona and everything they stand for (like Catalonia and left-leaning politics). For a Barcelona player to pay tribute to an Espanyol player on the world stage is like a North Carolina basketball player paying tribute to a fallen Duke player at the Olympics. In sports and in politics, Spain has traditionally been riven by geographical and cultural differences, but this team put all those issues aside, and now they’ve conquered the soccer world. Iniesta got a yellow card for taking his shirt off in celebration (one of 14 in the match!), but that was well worth it.
Of course, some people won’t like the way Spain have done it, winning all but one game by a 1-0 score. The thing is, their opponents watched the tape of USA’s game against Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup. (Now’s a good time to remind everybody: We totally beat those guys last year.) Most of Spain’s adversaries tried to play like we did — defend deep, shut down the middle of the field, dare the Spaniards to attack down the sides, and look for goals on the counterattack. Switzerland actually made it work in the first game, but nobody else could find that bit of luck on the offensive end, and the Spaniards stayed patient and worked the ball around until the winning goal came up. The Dutch (and the Chileans in the group stage) did the most to take the game to La Furia Roja, and if Arjen Robben had converted one of his chances (especially the one-on-one breakaway on Iker Casillas), who knows what might have happened?
Then again, if Sergio Ramos heads in the corner kick in the eighth minute, this game might have opened up. It wasn’t a pretty game, with the Dutch alternately playing like thugs (check out Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso) and whining to the referees (enough of the latter got Arjen Robben a yellow card from referee Howard Webb — how awesome was that?) This game wasn’t a showcase for attractive, flowing soccer, but Spain’s victory sends the right message all the same. It shows everybody that playing tiki-taka is the way to win tournaments. Perhaps more club teams and national teams will try to play that way, instead of trying to kick the crap out of opponents who try to play that way.
I’m going to miss Soccer City Stadium. That extensively remodeled Johannesburg stadium — whose colors reflect the dusty terrain around it — has been one of the cooler sights at this year’s World Cup.
Be back later to wrap up this year’s tournament.