Sunday, July 11, 2010

"The reign in Spain falls mainly on the plain..."

... and they all lived happily ever after.
Thrillingly enjoyable as this entire tournament has been, one worry nagged away as the days, hours, minutes dwindled before the final kick-off.
All memories could be spoiled, or at least slightly tainted… should Spain somehow contrive, yet again, not to triumph.

Okay, an admission: that’s just a cut-and-paste job, from my final reflections on the Euro 2008 final, though sentiments remain the same two years on.
Perhaps the Spanish, while by far the classiest and finest team here, have been a little more halting – even frustrating – en route to becoming world champions for the first time.
Like France in 2000, the last team to combine both world and European titles, the performances second time around have been a little slow-ish at points – but eventually relentless, inarguable and of the glossiest high-quality finish.
Yet it took yet another late rescue by the cherishable Andres Iniesta tonight to save us from a fate far worse than had, say, Germany somehow won in Vienna two years ago.
Heading into the final minutes of extra-time, at the end of a disappointing if not unwatchable World Cup final, the horrible prospect of the depressing Dutch stealing victory on penalties loomed large.
Joachim Low’s 2008 European Championship team were nowhere near so refreshing and at least pulse-racingly counter-attacking at this summer’s model.
Yet it would have seemed a travesty had they taken the European crown, just because Spain were such a pleasure to watch, envy but savour.
Bert van Marwijk’s Dutch team tonight, however, made Germany 2008 look like the Corinthian Casuals by comparison – a brutal, mean-spirited side with little intention to win by fair means instead of foul.
In fact, they didn’t seem too anxious about winning at all, save for the occasional dangerous break by Arjen Robben against an understandably-nervous Spanish defence.
Whizzkid Dutch substitute Eljero Elia, who played with an enjoyably breezy spirit in his first cameo against Denmark, was reduced to trudging back into his own half in desperate search of the ball tonight.
As for the Dutch clogs ... too many to mention, let alone for Howard Webb to keep immaculate track of, and he and his officials found themselves booed by both sets of fans.
Perhaps he could have stamped his authority – rather more constructively than the stamp of Dutch boots – earlier in the game, the very first minute indeed and the first violent rake by Robin van Persie.
The sudden spate of yellow cards he flashed midway through the first half might have been an attempt to let both sides know he’d stand no more nonsense – but if intended to calm any tetchiness, the effort backfired.
Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong could both have been off by half-time for their inexplicably reckless offences, and presumably they might well have been in a run-of-the-mill Premiership match.
Sending them off tonight would probably, though, have provoked protests that Webb had prematurely ‘ruined’ the biggest fixture in world football.
He had a tough task, and perhaps made himself look uncertain and manipulable in the eyes of some players – but it is the players themselves, the Dutch specifically, who should reflect with shame on a bad night out.
Little wonder Van Marwijk was so reluctant to talk tactics in the build-up to the final.
Thankfully, Spanish style triumphed in the end – and that it was the ever-modest Iniesta, as against Chelsea two years ago, who proved elusive enough before popping up in the right place. At the right time too, managing the latest ever winning strike in World Cup final history.
Diego Forlan has just been announced as winner of the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player, a split vote beneficiary of the failure by the likes of Villa or Sneijder to dominate this evening.
The pair of holding midfielders persisted with Vicente del Bosque again tonight perhaps meant Villa was a little too isolated at times.
Spanish composure and passing around midfield is delectable as ever, and Xavi’s probing, movement and simple creativity confirmed for him my Golden Ball vote (no doubt he’s delighted).
Yet after an exhilarating opening 20 minutes, in which Spain seemed determined to confront bored critics by playing their usual way but a few gears faster, the actual penetrative service to the striker dried up a little.
No doubt the Dutch ‘tactics’ made it difficult for the Spanish to advance, whether through that narrow, cramped block around the defence – or the persistent, disruptive fouling, by turns petty and menacing.
Despite missing one extra-time sitter after replacing Alonso, Cesc Fabregas did at least increase Spanish influence further up the pitch – making a mark for the first time in his (tentative) tournament, and helping move the ball between Holland’s rigid defensive lines.
The winner, when it came, brought instinctive cries of delight and relief even across the Press box, tears from Iker Casillas and a fittingly ‘job-well-done’ conclusion to South Africa’s showcase.
The closing ceremony beforehand had been entertaining – and entertainingly concise – with its trudging white elephants (a risky image, in one of the huge new stadia), and the inevitable Shakira.
Though someone might have advised her on how to dress more aptly, considering just how chilly this evenings here turn.
The hoarsest cheers, of course, were for very special guest Nelson Mandela, who hardly looked like a man under duress as he took a scoot around the pitch in a car, and dapper Russian hat.
Relief, and joy, and admiration, and relief again were resounded across this spectacular Soccer City stadium as he made his World Cup debut at the last – before hurrying home to watch the game on television.
A wise man, perhaps, as it turned out – he might even have been tempted to start hopping the channels.
Drab as the first 90 minutes certainly were, the final was eventually compelling enough – though the Dutch violence was off-putting, and the quality of passing and especially finishing not quite up to hopes and expectations for such a grand occasion.
Yet no one appeared to care very much as the Spanish got through a clumsy trophy presentation by Sepp Blatter and sent the cup, like the fireworks, rocketing skywards above Iker Casillas’ ever-reliable arms.

Amid the exploding showers of golden glitter, the air was also heavy with dawning revelations.
Yes, just now someone’s only gone and won the World Cup. No matter how heavily-trailed and much-anticipated the moment, an immense lurch from one era to another can indeed be captured and and absorbed in one melodramatic moment.
And yes, this particular show’s now over – the planning, the partying, the fretting, the forecasting, the concerns and the carnival, the expecting and the enjoying.
The beautifully aptly-named Soccer City, so long – it’s been beyond a pleasure.
Some treasures of people put this party on – and yes, once more in the end, some good guys won.

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