Monday, 12 July 2010

The Best World Cup Final In Decades

I’ve already heard expressions of disgruntlement about the world cup final. It wasn’t exciting; not enough goals; why is the third place play-off always so much better.

I couldn’t disagree more. I watched a thrilling final. There is a view, somewhat fed by lazy sports journalists, that goals=excitement. I do not share that view. The fact that the ball does not end up in the net does not invalidate an intricate, creative build-up, or a telepathically-engineered combination of perfectly-timed run and sublimely-weighted through ball that gives the defender no chance.

It is special when a brilliant move is rewarded with a goal. But to put so much store by the result seems a shallow way of thinking about the game. This final was a battle between two distinct ways of thinking about football, and, maybe, life.

It was clear that the Netherlands were going to come at the Spanish as they did Brazil – pressing all over the field, not allowing the Spanish time on the ball to settle into their possession-based domination, chipping away with tackles and fouls to ensure that no rhythm could be maintained.

Meanwhile Robben would do his thing, running at the defence whenever he had the opportunity, or Sneijder would take opportunities from outside the area, whether in open play or from a set piece. But it was always going to be based on winning the ball and making a quick counter-attack.

Spain, of course, would look to do what they have done for the past three years. Short passes, Busquets-Xabi Alonso-Xavi-Iniesta, probing for weakness, waiting for the defence to lose first patience, then shape. Which would allow room for Pedro or Villa. For variety, throw in some Pedro runs, and Ramos’ streaks from defence, and rely on Piquet and Puyol to guard against the counter.

And here’s the interesting thing about that match-up. In many ways, it's ass-backward.

In the mythology of the World Cup, The Netherlands teams of the 70s are not only the best team never to have won the World Cup – they are also the doomed romantics. The inventors of Total Football, defeated by the pragmatism, if not cynicism, of the German machine in 1974, and swept away by 80,011 Argentines in 1978 in the belly of the junta.

It would be unthinkable for Johann Cruyff, in the public’s eye the spiritual father of Total Football (and with those initials, who else could it be?) to express the sentiment as Dutch star Arjen Robben did that they would be happy with an ugly win.

He couldn’t even bring himself to support his nation’s team in this final. “I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing.”

Cruyff is one of those directly responsible for the football that Spain was playing. Not as the distant inspiration of a team separated by national borders and three generations of footballers, but as an adopted son of Barcelona, and as the most celebrated pupil of former Ajax and Barca coach Rinus Michels.

It was Michels who took the gospel of Total Football from Ajax Amsterdam to Barca, where Cruyff also spent many years as player and then coach. Cruyff won the European Cup as Barca’s coach, and one of his players then was their current coach, Pep Guardiola. Guardiola of course is also the coach of six Spanish starters in the World Cup final (Villa doesn’t join Barca until next season).

Through that lineage, Spain’s team is made up of apostles of the 1970s Netherlands. while the current Netherlands team have heretically abandoned the faith, and now invest their aspirations in the darker arts (per van Bommel and De Jong).

So one of the questions that we knew would have a significant effect on the outcome of the final was: How much latitude is referee Webb going to give the Dutch? It became clear very early that he was mindful of the danger of practicing laissez faire in a contest between such fundamental forces, with such a prize at stake (with even Brazil practicing the counter-attacking game, if Spain lost would the world ever again see a team employ possession and creativity as their basic building blocks?).

So the yellow card came out early and often, with a nod to even-handedness, and a crystal clear sub-text directed at the Dutch.

They read it loud and clear, and for me one of the remarkable things about the game from then on was how effectively the Dutch were able to defend against Spain’s domination of possession given the early foul trouble. I was actually about to say that out loud when I got distracted by Heitinga’s sending off.

The Netherlands did have a little help from Webb, who apparently didn’t want to decide the game with his whistle (at least not 28 minutes into the game) and so refrained from giving De Jong a straight red for his karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso (who by the way was completing passes at an 86% success rate before the foul, and could only manage 63% for the rest of the half).

It became pretty clear, pretty early, that both teams meant what they had said in the build-up. There would be no foxhole conversions in this battle. Or to switch metaphors, they were gonna dance with the gals they brung (even if, as in the Netherlands case, the gal was ugly!)

So there was a lot of play in midfield, with the Spanish short passes working through the middle third, probing, trying to break down the Dutch. And the Dutch had 8 or 9 players behind the ball much of the time. And I guess that doesn’t sound too exciting, but I was on edge watching Spain try to pick the lock; watching Xavi bring the ball forward from Busquets, envisioning the first move in the sequence that would set the strikers free; watching substiitute Jesus Navas make the runs down the right with such enterprise against the tiring Dutch legs. And equally on edge watching the Dutch trying to defend, knowing that with one defender and three defensive midfielders on yellows, they were walking a tightrope on a gusty day.

Finally, in the latter stages of the second half, and throughout extra time, Iniesta stepped up, finding incisive passes that always seemed to trouble the defence, forcing corners & throw ins, putting Fabregas in one-on-one.

When Navas made another spearing run but this time, instead of taking it all the way down for the cross as he had so many times, as if just remembering that he was playing Spanish football he suddenly turned towards the middle of the pitch. There he laid it on to Iniesta, whose magical back-heel helped work the ball over to the left, somewhat flatfooting the Dutch.

By the time it ended up with Torres playing the ball in from the left, Iniesta had made his way to the right of the goal area. This time when he found the ball at his feet there was no mistake about what needed to be done. A match winner with 3 minutes to play in extra time is a pretty good resolution in my books.

Would it help if we pretended that Ramos’ early header scored? And that Robben chipped over Casillas on the one-on-one, and then Villa’s point-blank effort found goal instead of being blocked away by Heitinga’s left boot, followed by Ramos’ second headed goal of the game, and call it 3-1 to Spain in regulation? Would it have been a better match then?

Not for me. I’m fine with the match that I saw. Apostles 1, Apostates 0.

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