Sunday was a moral victory: Spain clearly deserved to win not only the World Cup but also the actual game at hand.
The great Johann Cruyff came out today and accused the Dutch of being anti-football and, among other crimes, “hermetic.” He’s right about the anti-football. The Dutch strategy was as predicted: Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong set out to kick the Spanish into submission so Robben and Sneidjer would have a chance to win the game for Holland. Spain refused to let this happen and, as with Germany, imposed their methodical game of possession, albeit with more bruises, and won, as they so often did, 1-0. It could be noted that it was Andrés Iniesta, who scored the game-winner, whose theatrics got John Heitnga sent off—a booking which freed up the space for him to score a few moments later—but since Nigel de Jong should have seen red in the first half for putting his studs in Xabi Alonso’s chest, it all evens out in the end.
This has been a tournament of teams rather than stars. Messi, Kaka, Rooney, Ronaldo and the rest came and went without leaving any lasting impression. This is why Diego Forlan, who was everywhere for Uruguay, is so deserving of the golden ball award, for player of the tournament. Mostly the games have been controlled by players like Xavi and Schweinsteiger, midfield generals orchestrating their teams to victory. This is obviously all to the good—you only had to witness the idiocy of LeBron James’ recent prime-time special to see what happens when players are put above the game, and to understand why the triumph of Spain—and the related successes of Paraguay and Chile and Slovenia—are all to the glory of the sport.
And yet, it’s all a little bit anti-climactic. There is something too-scripted in Spain’s victory: the good guys won, if not too easily then at least too coherently. Spain was a joint favorite from the beginning, and played far and away the most elegant football of the tournament—exactly the kind of football they said they would play. They had not only the courage of their convictions but their conventions too. Only in the first game against the Swiss were they ever threatened, and that took three freak deflections to happen. Other than that, they won the ball, they kept the ball, they knocked it around the middle, they got kicked, complained, won a free kick, passed the ball around the middle some more, and then David Villa would score. It is easy to admire Spain, but not love them.
Compare this with World Cups past; Diego Maradona in ’86, Paolo Rossi in ’82, and, most spectacularly of course, Zinedine Zidane winning it all in ’98 and then, to really cement his legend, dragging France to the final and then throwing it all away in 2006. (Italy, the actual winners, ending up only bit-players in Zidane’s grand narrative.) There has been very little of that drama this time around. Instead, we’ve had 4-2-3-1, vuvuzelas, and the inconsistencies of both ball and ref to provide our talking points. I have had more conversations about goal-line technology in the last month than I ever thought I would have in my life. (For the record I am against it, unless it happens to my team, at which point I think it’s completely necessary and an outrage that it hasn’t been already introduced.)
It’s still the World Cup, though, and as the poet Ian Hamilton once said, “you should see me watch football. I watch it really hard.” Asamoah Gyan holding his shirt over his head, unable to believe that he has just missed the penalty that would send Ghana to the semi-finals, the U.S. goal against Slovenia, Carlos Tévez against Mexico, and Frank Lampard against Germany—the most memorable moments of the tournament have been the injustices. Tolstoy’s famous dictum about families, it turns out, is also true for football.