world cup

Good-bye, South America: It’s a Eurocentric Planet

They do know how to celebrate in Holland.

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 fantastic Germany-Spain match coming up today.

Let’s start with the past before we deal with the future. Yesterday’s B-list semifinal brought together one team that deserved to be there — Holland, widely held to be the best team never to have won a World Cup (Team Tulip’s best finish was runner-up in 1974 and 1978) — and another that didn’t: Uruguay, which finished fifth in South American qualifying and had to win a play-in game over Costa Rica just to make the party. Beyond that, the last of the South American teams should have gone home after the quarters, but we’ve already dealt with the events that led to the benching of Luis Suarez and his faux-hawk.

Uruguay needed many things to go right to have a chance against the Netherlands, and they were behind from the start, playing in Cape Town, a city that has housed the Dutch for four centuries, since the Dutch East India Trading Company set up shop on Africa’s big toe. The crowd was predictably orange and when Dirk Kuyt — or is that Ian Ziering, finally sprung from the shadow of Jason Priestley? — had a clear shot just feet from the goal in the opening minutes, it seemed like the game could get ugly for Young Michael Bolton’s baby blue army. But Kuyt airmailed the shot and Uruguay was alive.

The Oranje looked like the better side for much of the first half, even after Robin van Persie blocked his frenemy Wesley Sneijder’s shot with his back, causing the first of many occasions in which Sneijder clenched his fists and screamed at the gods. (Seriously, he did this — the Dutch star is not subtle in his displeasure.) And things only got oranger in the seventeenth minute when — holy Jabulani! — Giovanni von Bronckhorst launched one from way, way (way) out on the left wing. The Dutch captain’s ball didn’t bend, wobble or rise; it just shot from his foot to the goal’s upper corner like a laser beam. I’m pretty sure it was the best shot of the tournament. No, I’m certain it was. And it was especially surprising seeing as it was just van Bronckhorst’s sixth goal in 105 caps. (“Caps” is soccer jargon for games played for one’s national team. Why? I’m not sure, though it certainly has brevity in is favor.)

From there, the game could easily have gotten out of hand, but I have to hand it to Uruguay; the boys in blue didn’t fold. In fact, they played well, enlivened by returning starters Martin Caceres and Walter Gargano, referred to as the “tiny, little midfield man” by announcer Ian Darke, who also found time to remind me of my favorite pre–World Cup injury story: Seeking to expedite the healing process, Dutch striker Robin van Persie sought treatment from a woman in Belgrade who rubbed horse placenta on his bum ankle.

Uruguay also had Young Michael Bolton (okay, Diego Forlan), who managed to find a way to score a goal even though all eleven opposing players, and every human watching the game, knew that shutting him down was really the only thing Holland had to do to stifle Uruguay’s attack. Trouble is, YMB isn’t just awesome with his right foot. So when the Dutch defense closed down his primary foot, he simply cut the ball back and fired off a curling rocket with his left that thoroughly embarrassed Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg.

So, despite everything, it was 1–1 at the half.

I thought at that moment that there are two ways to look at Holland: They’re either really good and sort of coasting, or just kinda good and very lucky. They have flashes of brilliance but often play just well enough to win. Robben, van Persie, and Sneijder all make brilliant plays, and then boneheaded ones. Robben in particular seems determined to dick around with the ball, and when van Persie created a chance early in the second that he botched, I wrote “that might come back to haunt them” in my notes. On the periphery, Sneijder (again) howled at the heavens, mad (again) that the ball wasn’t laid off to him. So the next time he had the ball, he decided to take it himself, and whaddya know, his weak shot deflected twice and rolled into goal. It was oddly similar to Sneijder’s first goal against Brazil — a bit of a fluke that tied the game — but the guy has five goals and is tied for the Golden Boot lead, so clearly he’s doing something right.

Uruguay’s back was seemingly broken in the 73rd, when Robben headed in a nifty cross from Ian Ziering, who had just returned from dropping Donna off at the Peach Pit. But Uruguay kept fighting, scored one in extra time, and was even threatening in the final moments. I never really thought they were in danger of scoring, but it was cute to see their resolve, particularly with YMB’s golden locks on the bench.

Holland wins, and my pick survives another day.

So now Holland awaits an opponent. Who will they play? Spain. And here is why.

Everyone in the world who isn’t Spanish seems to be picking Germany. The Flying Teutons are the trendy pick, and not just because they’re trendy — the Germans have scored FOUR goals three times, including in two straight games against (allegedly) tough opponents, England and Argentina. Problem is, these teams walked straight into Germany’s trap. England was slow and dependent on the cross. Also they had gaping holes in their defense and an average age of 46.

Argentina was different — I thought Argentina could win this thing. Then I realized that what I liked so much about them was the same thing that killed him. (If only there was a mythological Greek symbol for this!) Maradona’s was a team of individual talents, each of whom was capable of filling highlight shows. They all push forward and want the ball. Throughout qualifying, fans ravaged Maradona for his seeming lack of tactics, but those same fans shut up when Argentina showed up at the World Cup and looked awesome.

Then the Germans blew over the house of cards. In the end, Argentina really didn’t have any tactics. Maradona just put his eleven best out there and asked them to make magic.
And Germany just waited for those dribblers to dribble forward, and for the backs to make runs, and then they did what they do — they countered. They filled those Pampas plains behind the Argentina attack and launched surgical strikes at the weak Argentine defense. And when the Germans get chances, they don’t miss them. Adios, Maradona.

One reason you’ll hear that Spain could be in for a similarly miserable day is that La Furia Roja also likes to attack. As I noted after the quarters, the Spanish backs love to make runs. And in theory, this leaves them vulnerable to quick counterattacks. (See the team’s only two losses in the past three years, to the USA and Switzerland.) The difference between Argentina and Spain, though, is that the latter is incredibly disciplined. They can pass the ball for hours without losing possession, and while this approach can grow tedious, it is always masterful. Xavi and Iniesta and Alonso and Busquets rarely grow impatient, as the Argentine midfielders did. They have no problem going forward, then sideways, then backward, starting over and probing until someone spots a chance to spring David Villa, who is playing as well as any striker in this tournament who isn’t Young Michael Bolton — no, I’m sorry — Diego Forlan.

The German defense is stout and disciplined. Its members stayed home against Messi and Tevez and Higuain, rarely beaten off the dribble and somehow in the way of every shot taken. That won’t be so easy against the Spanish, who create chances via precise passes that exploit spaces that don’t yet exist. You can guard a man, but how do you defend his ghost?

Germany has won three previous World Cups and is in the final four for the third-straight tournament. Spain is playing in its first-ever semi. But this game is a rematch of the 2008 European Championship game, which Spain won 1–0. It’s undeniable that Germany has improved since then, but I still think Spain is the better team, and will win one of the tournament’s best games, 2–1. That’ll set up Holland-Spain, which isn’t just a potentially awesome game — it’s the final I picked before this whole thing started.

Good-bye, South America: It’s a Eurocentric Planet