The semi-finals of this World Cup have led to an earth shattering cosmic twist: everybody now likes Germany.
Most of the credit for this goes down to the way they play. Germany was dazzling to watch, especially in the crushing of Argentina and England. They lost their captain, big star and only member of the team to play outside Germany, Michael Ballack, a month before the finals began. The team they brought to South Africa is made up of young players who mostly came up through the German youth system (and many of whom helped the country win last year’s European youth championship). They’re a marvelous spectacle—they keep their shape, looking to play on the counter attack. And when they do, the ball moves so swiftly and intelligently from one end to the other that no one can keep up with them. They also seem largely free of the diving, grandstanding, and waving of imaginary cards. Unlike so many other teams in the tournament, they get on with things.
Speaking of diving and imaginary card waving, Spain came into the tournament as the European favorites, with ball movement and a promised redemption for previous failures. But even if they win, they will leave with their haloes gleaming a little less brightly. We have been denied the glory of Xavi and Andres Iniesta running the midfield at a tempo and geometry they dictate. Instead we have been forced to watch the odious Sergio Busquets collapse in a heap every time someone looks at him funny, while Xavi and Xabi Alonso get in each other’s way. Up front, Spain has been entirely dependent on goals from David Villa. Fernando Torres, who came into the tournament as the Spanish golden boy, has had so bad a time of it that The Guardian—in a misguided attempt to salvage his reputation—called him a more talented Emile Heskey. Perhaps worse, it turns out he dyes his hair.
The Netherlands have discovered realpolitik. Often described as the best team never to win the tournament, they have set aside the Total Football dream and replaced it the subtle violence of Mark van Bommel, the diving of Arjen Robben and the vision of Wesley Sneidjer (arguably the player of the tournament). Holland has not played particularly well yet, doing just enough to beat the team in front of them—and then, when faced with Brazil, goading and tormenting the Seleção into a nervous collapse.
Uruguay should be the sentimental favorites. It’s the smallest country, a return to former glory, Diego Forlán’s one-man creation machine. But the nature of their win over Ghana has put a stop to that. It’s not the handball itself that’s the problem—it’s a game, people cheat, they were punished within the rules, who among us, etc. etc. It’s the way they’ve behaved since—Luis Suarez running around saying it was the hand of God and the best save of the tournament isn’t going to win him any friends. And then this from Óscar Tabárez, the Uruguayan coach:
It was an instinctive act, nothing more. Suárez couldn’t have foreseen that, afterwards, Ghana would miss the penalty. Don’t talk to me about a lack of humility. The Uruguayan people bring out their collective personal strength when they have to. We are very proud, and we’re upset by this topic. We’re proud of our performances and what we’ve contributed to this World Cup. Uruguay went through the three previous games with hardly a yellow card, so please don’t tell me we’re cheats.
It’s not the having of the cake that’s so dispiriting it’s the eating it too. He sounds like Sarah Palin.