Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today ... a look at the reemergence of Europe.
What a difference 24 hours makes. As recently as Saturday morning, just before the onset of the World Cup quarterfinals, we were all singing the praises of the South American teams. And it was possible — though not probable — that the final four could all come from the continent. I didn't think that would happen, obviously. (One of those four teams was Paraguay, after all.) And I've been screeching about Holland since day one of this tournament, in part because I thought it was just too obvious to pick Brazil (or my backup, Spain), and in part because I do genuinely believe the Dutch play great soccer with great players at nearly every position. Plus, I love their uniforms.
Over the World Cup's first two weeks, I too got swept up in the South America fever that felled journalists from pole to pole. According to scientists, results don't lie, and the early results seemed to show that South American teams were just better (except for Holland!). Nine of the thirteen European teams flamed out while all five South American countries survived to the knockout round, and the only one that didn't make it to the quarters (Chile) was sent home by Brazil.
But I guess what the results really showed is that Europe was only mostly awful, with the major exception of its very top teams, which are excellent. Because this weekend, Europe awoke from the dead, and in three of the four semis, European teams vanquished South American sides. Apparently, the very top teams from Europe are better than the very top teams from South America. And then there's Uruguay.
As bullish as I am about the Dutch, I actually think that if Brazil and Holland played ten times, the Brazilians would win six of those games. I don't know that I'd say that about Argentina versus Germany. If you were to put the lineup cards side-by-side, you would absolutely think that Argentina should win this game. Maradona's bunch was loaded with ball-handling maestros who score goals by the bunches. And yet Argentina was steamrolled, just like England. What happened?
First off, they gave up an early goal — the earliest World Cup goal since 1978, in fact, just two minutes. That upset the Argentines from the start and forced them to do what they were going to do anyway: press the ball into the German half, only with a sense of urgency. Which is exactly what the Germans wanted them to do.
The Germans are a weird team. They aren't all that talented on the ball (as dribblers, I mean) and they rarely dominate the possession. What they do well is defend and stay organized, then wait for space and pounce. When Germany is on the run, there is no better team in the world. I can't remember a team that seizes on opportunity better than this one — and in Ozil, Klose, Podolski, and Müller, the Germans have four players who seem incapable of missing a high-percentage scoring chance. If you look at the stats for this game, you'll see that Argentina dominated possession and actually outshot the Germans, but if you watched the game you'll know that much of that possession was harmless passing in search of a hole in a German defense that wasn't going to provide one. Nearly every shot seemed to deflect off a German player — the best chance of the game, a blast from Tevez, was rejected by the face of that pasty beanpole Mertesacker — and the few that reached goal barely required keeper Manuel Neuer to move more than a few inches.
If you had just stumbled upon the score of this game you'd assume it was an outright rout (and I guess in the end, it was), but for 65 minutes, the score stood at 1–0 and for much of that time Messi and his friends were playing keep-away in the German end. That seemed just fine with the Germans, who were laying in wait for a chance to take off running again. A team like Argentina, which is always pushing forward, leaves large gaps behind its attack and those gaps are fuel for Germany's fire. And once the Argentines were down 2–0, they had to push even more, and that left larger gaps. That's how Germany scores four times (ask England or Australia).
Compare this game to the one against Serbia, though, and you'll see that Germany is vulnerable to a team that forces it to play a more methodical, ball control game in which an attack is slowly built and not furiously launched. And a team that can only beat certain kinds of opponents, even if it beats those opponents senseless, won't win the World Cup.
Great news for Spain, right? Maybe not. Spain is the ball-hog-iest team in the World Cup, having controlled possession a remarkable 68 percent of the time. Like Argentina, they just keep pushing, so much that fullbacks Sergio Ramos, Carlos Puyol, and Joan Capdevila (not a woman!) seem to spend more time attacking the opponents' box than defending their own. As the U.S. showed last summer, and Switzerland showed again in this tournament, that leaves Spain vulnerable to speedy counterattacks. And neither of those teams is as good on the run as Germany. So Spain is going to have to be very, very careful.
Let's all give thanks that no matter who wins this hopefully awesome all-European semifinal, it won't be Paraguay. Having now watched back-to-back Paraguay games, one of which went into extra time, I can safely say this is the most boring team in the tournament, if not the most boring team I've ever watched. So effective is their disciplined pack-it-in defense that for all of the first half and much of the second, this game took place between the boxes, and Spain was obviously frustrated. (I watched it a few hours later, on tape, and fast-forwarded whole sequences in which the ball just ponged around the midfield like a terrible game of bar-room foosball.)
I've never seen Spain botch so many passes, but such is the challenge of playing Paraguay. The terrifying thing was that until David Villa mercifully sent the South Americans packing with his tournament-leading fifth goal, in the 82nd minute, it seemed possible that Paraguay could possibly eek out a win, even if it required erecting a chain link fence in front of the goal and deflating the Jabulani until time came for a shoot-out. It takes a truly soporific strategy to make Spain boring, but Paraguay was up to the task.
I'd totally understand if you fell asleep and missed the excitement in this one, but it's too bad. Because, there, in the middle of the 87 minutes of paint drying was 3 minutes of flaming monkey rodeo. The first of these minutes would be the 52nd, in which Gerard Pique put a Paraguayan player in a figure-four arm lock and threw him down in the box — before a corner kick had actually been kicked. Paraguay was awarded a penalty kick and it seemed grim for Spain — a 1–0 lead for the candy stripers could be insurmountable, as tragic as that is — until Iker Casillas blocked and then swallowed Oscar Cardozo's shot.
That was crazy enough, but what happened next was even more unbelievable. I'm still not sure it actually happened and if not for the end of the Ghana-Uruguay game I'd be saying this was the craziest minute of soccer I'd ever seen. Casillas saved the ball, then punted it up and Spain was immediately on the attack. David Villa got the ball, behind the defense, and then he too was pulled down in the box. Penalty kick to Spain! Not even a minute after the other one!
I figured it would be Villa, or Xavi who took the kick, but it was Xabi Alonso who stepped up and coolly drilled the kick home. All seemed to be bueno for Spain. Until the ref waved it off because the Spanish encroached upon the penalty box too early, and so Alonso had to take it again. And this time, the ball was saved! Because a game this dull needed some excitement and two penalty kicks in one minute was not enough. These penalty kicks must also be saved! It was the first time since the very first World Cup in 1930 that two penalty kicks were missed in one game and in this case, both kicks came within the same minute — with a made-but-waved-off PK in the middle for good measure.
Said whichever of those British guys was calling the game: "This is really stranger than fiction" and "somehow it's still nil-nil." (Even crazier: Replays showed that Spain's Cesc Fabregas, who was following the blocked kick, was actually tripped by the goalie and should have earned yet another penalty kick, but that did not happen, and it's probably a good thing, because my head would have exploded.)
Even when Spain finally scored a goal that counted, it wasn't easy. Xavi and Iniesta conjured a little midfield magic to present Pedro with a clear shot at goal that he proceeded to donk off the post. As he often is, Villa was there to clean things up with his tiny, triangular, stripper bush beard — but not before he killed the last three surviving weak-hearted men in Spain with a shot that donked both posts in the process.
Where does that leave us? With a rematch of the 2008 European Championship game on one side, and the Oranje crush on the other. After all the hullabaloo about South America, the semifinals of the World Cup look almost exactly like the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships. Only Russia is missing from that quartet, and in their place is Uruguay, a team that's just lucky to be here.