Thursday, 8 July 2010
The Final Countdown; The Best of Europe
South Africa’s failure to progress from Group A is probably the least surprising of these two breaks with tradition. Even so, they came bloody close and but for the late French rally (about three matches too late) could have found themselves going through.
European success was expected, but not in such comprehensive fashion. As the teams from the continent that made up three-quarters of the semi-finals grew into the tournament, so the much-lauded South American sides slowly fell away. The Dutch have accounted for two of them, Brazil (who themselves saw off Chile) and Uruguay, by being just as dirty as their opponents. This may seem a contentious view, given Felipe Melo’s red card against the Oranje and Luis Suarez’s handball for Uruguay against Ghana, but the fact that Mark van Bommel hasn’t been booked for any of his numerous cases of assault yet is amazing. His yellow card in stoppage time in the semi final was for erring with the mouth rather than the foot (or feet). The fact that van Bommel hasn’t been suspended in this tournament is the biggest mystery since me and Bushby tried to work out why posh lads just CANNOT grow facial hair.
There was some justice in a dirty cheating Uruguay being put out of the World Cup, but something of a bitter taste that it was by the cheating snivelling Dutch – I have seen enough of Arjen Robben’s face contorted in false agony this tournament to last me a lifetime, and he’s only played in three matches.
The Dutch have flickered rather than caught fire. That accolade can be reserved for Germany, who exuberantly bamboozled Capello’s England and then Maradona’s Argentina, scoring eight and conceding one. The demise of La Albiceleste owed as much to their own manager as it did to Joachim Low in the Germany dugout – Maradona’s selections looked fine when the opposition were as weak as they were in the Argies’ group. They looked less fine when Germany’s front three were buzzing about like coked-up flies around a trifle.
But is Europe’s gain the result solely of South America’s ill discipline and tactical naivety? Far from it. Perhaps their success is helped by the fact that though this World Cup is outside Europe, its climate is distinctly European. But this can’t be the only reason, given that plenty of the American, African and Asian players know how to play in a wintry climate and at altitude. Much was made of the German’s winter break after England’s root and branch inquiry began in earnest. But the South American leagues have one too.
With a winter break, the Germans did appear fresh as they destroyed England and Argentina (and Australia), but they were undone by Spain last night, themselves boasting players with ultra-demanding season-long schedules. While the Spanish might be tired, it hasn’t seemed to bother them too much.
It is here the crucial factor lies, in this as in many tournaments. We should never underestimate the importance of clicking into gear and finding form – or if not form, then a way to win – at the right time. The Spanish, with their hotly-anticipated arrays of attacking talent, have actually made not conceding goals their bedrock. Don’t lose the ball and you can’t concede. Don’t concede and you can’t lose. Don’t lose, and your confidence grows.
Rather than high-scoring victories – and with Fernando Torres looking as lost as a dad in a nightclub – Spain have been clinical when chances have presented themselves. Results have mattered more than performances – Vicente del Bosque’s team have lost only once and conceded just twice, while their opponents in the final, the Dutch, have not lost a game at all (in fact they have a 100% record, including all their qualifiers) and came from behind to beat Brazil.
So we probably shouldn’t expect this World Cup final to be a classic. Both teams are confident enough to play exactly the way they have been – and why not? – aware of their ability to get a goal at some point and secure in the knowledge they will be able to close the game out should they take the lead. For all the South American flair and the continental hoodoo, the Europeans have come through having found a way to win ruthlessly, as well as the belief and patience to execute it. The traits are not new, but the World Cup winner will be. Rob MacDonald