Sports Nut

Not-So-Beautiful Game

Spain’s win over the Netherlands brings a fantastic World Cup to a hacking, plodding end.

Spain’s national soccer team celebrates winning the 2010 World Cup

Before Sunday’s World Cup final, the famed Catalan pitch invader Jimmy Jump slipped onto the field, charged the podium, and attempted to place a red hat on the tournament winner’s gold trophy before security guards wrestled him to the ground. In a World Cup whose outstanding celebrity was a psychic octopus, the pre-game shenanigans were a fitting prophecy of what lay ahead: a hint of high style, a bit of Spanish daring, and a sudden punch in the throat.

While Spain’s 1-0 win over the Netherlands capped a tournament that was frequently marvelous, the immiseratingly dull final could only have been pleasing to Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s twinkle-eyed president, who grinned along from the sidelines with visions of TV shares dancing in his head. Like Super Bowls, World Cup finals seldom make great games, but this one transcended mere nongreatness. It was a kind of perfect storm of undesirable match traits—a lurching, diving example of the elements that can conspire to make a soccer game boring.

The Spanish, at least, tried to play soccer. What caused the match to capsize wasn’t Spain’s cool, probing, slow-passing attack, but Holland’s tactics for coping with it. A soccer game is a fragile thing. The pitch is so large, the players are so spread out, and the difficulty of controlling the ball is so great that it’s relatively easy for a weaker team to disrupt a stronger team simply by devoting its energies to mass frustration. Holland manager Bert van Marwijk confessed after the match that he thought Spain was the better team. In the first half in particular, his tactics suggested as much, as the Dutch concentrated more on thwarting their opponents than creating their own scoring chances. Holland pressed Spain relentlessly all over the pitch, hacked the ball whenever they got near it, and—in a move that turned a shrewd defensive strategy into something a little less praiseworthy—fouled often and lavishly, banking on the idea that referee Howard Webb wouldn’t dare blow the whistle on every cheap tackle.

The result was that the Dutch players by themselves shattered the previous record for total yellow cards in a World Cup final. And Webb did eventually send off Johnny Heitinga for a foul on Andrés Iniesta a few minutes before the end of the game. But long before that happened, Holland had already gotten away with at least two fouls that could have drawn straight red cards: a bone-clattering lunge on Iniesta by resident goon Mark van Bommel, and a crane kick to Xabi Alonso’s heart by Nigel de Jong.

Spain was creating chances—a series of through balls from the midfield found David Villa just slightly offside—but they were also getting clobbered and harassed. After a while, looking for help from the referee, they started diving, or at least exaggerating contact. This in a game that already featured Holland star Arjen Robben, the public face of diving in this World Cup—a player whose theatrical displays of Horrible Roiling Anguish inspired an Internet meme and drove his opponents insane. By his standards, Robben had a quiet night, meaning he let loose shrieks of excruciation only two or three times. Still, the falling sickness spread to other players, and the game gradually disintegrated.

Van Marwijk’s tactics seemed to owe something to the approach José Mourinho’s Inter Milan used in upsetting FC Barcelona—the great club team that’s home to many of the Spanish players—in the Champions League this year. But where Mourinho’s strategy was a canny attempt to cover for his team’s weaknesses, van Marwijk’s plan stifled some of his team’s strengths. The high Dutch back line and the commitment to counterattacking through Robben meant that Holland’s best player, Wesley Sneijder (by coincidence, an Inter man) was left with a paucity of time on the ball and a poverty of space in which to operate. Van Marwijk opened his team up slightly in the second half, using his substitutions to send on more attack-minded players. Not coincidentally, led to two neon-fringed chances for Robben to score on the counter. But he missed them both, and van Marwijk’s substitutions wound up costing Holland the game: By sending on Rafael van der Vaart for the crane-kicking de Jong, he left the team a holding midfielder short when Heitinga got red-carded in the game’s waning moments. Iniesta’s winning goal came just a few minutes later, on a pass from Cesc Fàbregas that was set up by a botched clearance from van der Vaart.

For the Spaniards’ part, they played the way they always play, halfway between a preternatural cool and a chilly patience. They never hurry, they never panic, they rely on their almost unbreachable defense (just two goals conceded at this World Cup), and they trust the midfield brain, controlled by Xavi, to think them out of any difficulty. As the game gnawed on, they committed their share of infractions—Carles Puyol could have been sent off for a professional foul on Robben—but they were transparently the better team. As world champions go, they’re not extremely convincing, at least on the evidence of their tentative, pettish play in this match. But as the great soccer writer Jonathan Wilson pointed out after the game, they were one of the only teams in the tournament to be “consistently proactive in its play.” (You could count Chile, but there’s proactive, and then there’s deranged.) They’re only the third team ever to hold the European title and the World Cup simultaneously, and they’ve dominated world soccer for so long that this victory feels like a culmination, even if it came after a soggy performance in a historically terrible game.

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