Monday, July 12, 2010

Que Viva Espana

Spain wins a game of Total Crudeball and deservedly lift the 19th World Cup.

Yesterday night's World Cup Final between Spain and the Netherlands was not certainly an advertisement of football and it was unfortunate considering the stage and occasion. Billed as a battle between the originators of the flowing "Total Football" and the practitioners of its 21st century form, the "Tiqi-Taca", the game instead turned out to be a Rumble in the Nasrec. But ultimately, Spain, which had played less unfairly as compared to its opponent, triumphed. The winning goal was stuck by little Catalan Andres Iniesta, who in many ways, represents the spirit of Spain in the manner he plays - dribbling out of crowded areas, relentlessly passing and attempting to exploit the smallest gaps for breakthroughs. As an aside, the fact that a Catalan mattered the most in Spain's biggest sporting triumph was intriguing considering that more than a million Catalans had demanded the recognition of an autonomous "nation" of Catalonia within Spain, marching on the streets only a few days ago. It took until late in extra time for Iniesta and Spain to score, as they muffed up many an opportunity to continue a trend of bad finishing in this World Cup. Indeed, Spain are the World Champions with the least number of goals - 8 in 7 games - ever, while ratcheting up the most passes made in a World Cup since 1966.

Despite the billing of a clash between near equals in quality of play, those who had followed every game played by Holland in the Cup would have noticed the deliberate emphasis on realism that dominated Dutch play. Far from relying on total football, the Dutch had emphasised strong midfield tackling, robust counter-attacking and decisive finishing. It was the first of the qualities that dominated the Dutch style of play against Spain. Eager to disrupt the short passing game of the Spanish, Holland's forward Robbie Van Persie and defensive midfielders - the villainous Mark Van Bommel and the rough Nigel De Jong engaged in scrunching fouls. De Jong should have been sent off for this raised kick at Xabi Alonso's chest; the hard working English referee Howard Webb merely gave him a Yellow owing to the occasion. That said, the Dutch indeed played havoc with the Spanish game - the latter played a much alien game in the later minutes of the first half, relying on long vertical passes and responding in rough kind to marauding Dutch moves. Early in the half though, they looked far more assured, as their short passing game and wing play gave them a couple of good chances - one shot at goal from a cross, stopped effectively by Dutch goalie Stekelenberg and another volley by David Villa missing the left post.

The second half saw a slightly more open game, as the Dutch threatened with counter-attacks. Arjen Robben was a terror on the right wing, weaving complicated patterns at the defenders and drifting suddenly into the middle to receive weighted passes from midfield. One of his runs was halted only by the diligence of the best man-to-man defending goal keeper in the world, Iker Casillas, who struck out a desperate foot, even while diving to the left wrongly to halt a sure shot Robben ball speeding to the goal, after the latter broke free. Howard Webb's patience was meanwhile, wearing very thin. Yellow cards were being brandished left, right and center and the dirty Dutch were more often the recipients. Spain's wing play was not so much effective and Pedro was soon replaced by Jesus Navas, the Sevilla winger, whose introduction in the last third of regulation time, revved up the Spanish, who looked more threatening. But the finishing continued to lack bite, as the Spanish were unable to convert a few golden set piece opportunities.In the meantime, there was a dangerous run by Robben, who was controversially impeded by already warned Carlos Puyol from behind. The referee looked like playing advantage for the Dutch and no foul was awarded. Robben's livid remonstration meanwhile earned him a stern yellow from Webb.

In extra time, the Spanish easily looked the better side, as Holland continued to hack its way trying to prevent Spain having an advantage. The introduction of another little playmaker, Cesc Fabregas helped the Spanish to create newer opportunities. Dutch centre half Johnny Heitinga got the inevitable red card as a slight push on Iniesta got the little midfield maestro sprawling on the turf close to the Holland D. Xavi missed yet another set piece, but the Spanish were exhorted by coach Vicente Del Bosque to continue to attack. And that paid dividends, as an attacking move from the left saw the ball passed to a free Iniesta on the right close to goal. Iniesta took an assured first touch and blasted a diagonal shot across Stekelenberg, finally delivering Spain the decisive edge, very close to the end of extra time. The Dutch response was cantankerous, as defender Mathijson was booked for protesting and making too much ado about nothing. Xavi and Iniesta were booked for time wasting and dilly-dallying and a whopping 13 cards were brandished not including the red to Heitinga.

In the end, Iniesta's decisiveness was enough for Spain to chalk out yet another 1-0 win - fourth in a row. It was some kind of a poetic justice. Their squad played a more true form of beautiful football, pinging passes and creating attacking rhythms while holding on to possessions and denying opponents chances, throughout the tournament. Many Spanish players impressed in different roles - Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso and Busquets were easily the best midfield while Puyol and Pique were revelations; Casillas was solid as ever and Villa carried Spain through to the finals with his devastating finishing. The coach, avuncular Del Bosque was no-nonsense, reveling in man-management - true to his calling card. Spain had already banished mammoth demons with their Euro'08 championship victory and they shrugged off their underwhelming footballing history by being triumphant in South Africa. The Dutch were third time unlucky, but earned no sympathisers for their rough effort in the final.

Johann Cruyff described his preference and admiration for the Spanish by invoking his first love for the way they played football - which trumped over his nationality. As a neutral from India, this writer stands in unison in the footballing great Cruyff to celebrate the victory of football - and the Spanish. Que Viva Espana!

1 comment:

Huckleberry Finn said...

Dude, Iniesta is not Catalan, he is Castilian...