world cup

Spain, Champions of the World

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, his final missive, a look at Spain’s World Cup final victory over the Netherlands.

As bullish as I’ve been about Holland since the very first Jabulani was jostled into action, I’m not at all surprised to be typing this sentence: The Spanish are champions of the world. It wasn’t easy, and it was certainly in doubt until nearly the end, but Spain got yet another late goal, to put yet another 1–0 result in the books, and the top-ranked team in the world has now pulled off a very (very) rare double: Spain holds both the European and World Cup titles at once.

The story you’re likely to read around the interwebs is that Holland dragged this game into the gutter, and to a large degree, that’s true. Perhaps the best way to neutralize Spain, a team of small-ish finesse players who play possession soccer, is to trip, and hack, and otherwise wear them down; it’s the strategy you might recognize from those old Charles Oakley–era New York Knicks — pound on a more skilled opponent enough and eventually he’ll get skittish. He might even lose his nerve. The Spaniards didn’t get skittish, but they did get chippy themselves, and you can hardly blame them in a game in which referee Howard Webb (who could easily moonlight as a thug in Guy Ritchie movies, by the way) handed out fourteen yellow cards, nine of them to players wearing orange. (This was more than double the previous record for most cards in a final: six.)

It was no surprise to see the Dutch playing a little dirty; a similar combination of hard tackling and blatant diving caused Brazil to implode after controlling the first half versus the Oranje. Against Spain, though, the Dutch took it to another level, and it’s a small miracle that only one player was sent off — defender John Heitinga, in extra time. In particular, Nigel De Jong, a player so dirty he should be starring in Danish porn, should have been sent to red-card jail in the 29th minute for a horrific cleat-first kick to Xabi Alonso’s chest that gets my vote for worst foul of the tournament. De Jong’s partner in crime (literally, at least of the on-field variety) Mark von Bommel could have joined him. He got one well-deserved yellow and was probably worthy of another on at least two occasions.

For the most part, Spain kept its cool. (For the most part.) And it kept doing what Spain does — slowly building up possession and picking at holes in the defense. If you throw out the fouling, Holland played excellent defense against the Spanish, closing down the passing lanes once La Roja neared the box and frustrating the shit out of David Villa and his crazy beard with a nearly perfect offside trap.

Holland, though, wasn’t just fouling. It had the ball far more than Germany did in the semifinals, and especially thanks to Arjen Robben’s private reserve of Cocoon pool water, the Old Young Guy (or is it Young Old Guy?) was a constant threat to the Spanish back line. Honestly, both teams should have scored in regulation. In the 63rd minute, Wesley Sneijder freed Robben on a beautiful ball that led to one-on-one with Iker Casillas, who made an excellent kick save while falling away from the ball. (The Dutch goalie, Maarten Stekelenberg, made an equally excellent kick save of his own late on Cesc Fabregas in the second half.) In the 77th minute, it was Sergio Ramos’s turn to blow an easy chance when he blew a header that was basically sitting on a tee. (I blame the headband.) A moment later, Robben, one of the planet’s most notorious floppers, chose for perhaps the first time in his career not to dive, and stayed on his feet despite getting mugged by Motorhead Puyol on another one-on-one. Robben wobbled but stayed up, and Casillas was once again there to save his country. If Robben dives, Puyol is most likely red-carded, and this game probably has a much different ending.

It took the entirety of regulation and nearly all of the 30 minutes of extra time for someone to score, and having watched another two hours of Spanish soccer, I’m glad it was Spain that finally did it. The best team won. Not only the team that played best throughout the World Cup, but the team that’s played best for the past two years. Spain probably wasn’t convincing if you were following just the score sheets; the team scored just eight goals, by far the lowest total of any champion. (The previous low was eleven.) But it did play the most consistent soccer. It set a record for possession (holding the ball more than 60 percent of the time), while its wildly underrated defense gave up only two goals, the same number surrendered by the previous champion, Italy, a team that was basically credited with winning because of its defense.

I’m certainly happy in the end that this didn’t come down to a shootout. I was already dreading it, in fact, by the time Spain finally scored. The only good that could have come of that result was that it would have justified me lobbying for what I consider to be my brilliant alternate plan for resolving tied games. Actually, now that I’ve mentioned it, I may as well share. Here’s what I propose to FIFA: After 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, a series of 5 minute (or 10, this might take some refining) overtime periods will ensue. At the onset of each period, teams must remove a player, thus opening play and also exhausting the survivors until someone scores. If you thought John Isner’s 176–174 final set victory over that other guy I can’t bother to look up was compelling sports television, imagine a four-on-four match featuring David Villa, Xavi, Iniesta and Iker Casillas versus Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, and Maarten Stekelenberg.

But I digress. With this victory, Spain becomes just the eighth country to win the World Cup. (The last first-time winner was France, in 1998, and they were playing at home.) It’s also the first team to win the Cup after losing its opening match, and the first team ever to win while featuring a player who once played drums in Deep Purple. (Carlos Puyol, obvs.) What’s more, a new star was born: Paul the Octopus. That crafty mollusk went eight for eight with his picks, which can’t just be luck; rather, it’s completely insane and proves he is clairvoyant. If you’re headed to Spain in the near future, order the pulpo at your own risk.

The only thing not resolved by the final was the Golden Boot, given to the tournament’s high scorer. David Villa and Wesley Sneijder both entered the game with a chance to win the trophy, and a goal by either would have cleanly broken the four-way tie of five goals shared by the two, along with Uruguay’s Young Michael Bolton and Germany’s Thomas Müller. Alas, neither scored, and Müller was awarded the shiny shoe based on FIFA’s unique tiebreaker: In the case of a tie, the Golden Boot shall go to the man with the most umlauts. If no man has umlauts, it goes to the man with the most phenomenal hair. (Or maybe it goes to the guy with the most assists. I’m a little hazy on the details.)

Don’t cry for Young Michael Bolton, though; he won’t go home empty handed. YMB — okay, Diego Forlan — won the Golden Ball, given to the tournament’s most outstanding player, as well as the Golden Locks, which I think is pretty self-explanatory. The man was awesome throughout the tournament, and he absolutely deserved it. The only real argument you can make against him is that maybe the MVP should go to a player on the team that wins. And in that case I’d probably have picked Xavi, who looks like a pickpocket from an old silent French film but plays … well, he also plays like a pickpocket from an old silent French film. The dude is crafty, and if he wasn’t making the pass that led to the Spanish goal (or near goal), he was making the pass that led to the pass that led to the Spanish goal (or near goal).

And that, my friends, wraps up the World Cup. It is utterly nonsensical to watch a final and then feel like the end of a tournament was anticlimactic, but that’s a little how it feels every time the World Cup winds down. It’s there, like a dependable (exciting, jingoistic) friend, nearly every day for a month and then, one day, it’s gone. In its place, only silence. And the Mets.

One of the best things about the World Cup is that you have to wait four years for the next one. And one of the worst things is that you have to wait four years for the next one. See you all in Brazil.

Spain, Champions of the World