Last night (or should I say this morning; 03:30hrs Korean time) was the first time I watched Spain play in the world cup. I kind of chuckled and didn’t care much when they were almost knocked out of their group during the qualifying stages. The prospect of another big European scalp was tantalizing for the cynic in me, and of course there could be fewer bigger scalps than the tournament favourites! France and the holders Italy, both went early and it would be only fitting to see the tournament favourites stumble with them. They didn’t as we all know.
I’ve watched a good few of Germany’s games, especially the games against England and Argentina. Few would have been forgiven for thinking that they have been the best team to play so far. They thrashed three teams by scoring four goals, and despite what you might say about the unrecognised goal (if I called it disallowed it would mean it was cancelled out, it wasn’t even spotted by the officials, all just another way of describing it), Germany probably would have still beaten England by a hockey score.
Well, anyway back to the point. Last night I finally got a chance to see Spain play. I was very impressed; I was in fact really impressed. What I hadn’t been impressed by up to this game was the number of 1-0 victories Spain had leading to this stage; I reckoned they didn’t have it in them. But then again maybe Paraguay and Portugal were considerably better teams than England and Argentina, or maybe they just work to their strengths and pull off win after win (incidentally Del Bosque has a 92% win rate since taking over as the Spanish boss, more about this man later). The Paraguay game looked like a real tough encounter, I watched the highlights and it went down to the wire, and so did this game between Germany and Spain.
Before I give an armchair account of the match, I reckon this must be said more than anything; this was a real clash of the titans, Spain, the tournaments starting favourites against Germany, the potential usurpers of their fiesta. Both teams met two years ago in the EUEFA final, and Spanish players were quoted in the papers that they knew they were playing against a vastly improved German side. The games against Australia, England and Argentina were a testament to this.
When the game started, it was clear that both sides were here to play football; both sides knew that this was the only way they could win. There were a few little tumbles here and there, but the tackles were hard and challenges were fair. I read on the Fifa website just a minute ago that 30% of the game, so around 30 minutes, was played before the ref blew the whistle for the first foul, a definite rarity in football these days but a clear example of the quality of player that was on show here. Another key element in this game was the honest respect that the two teams of players had for each other. There were a couple of incidents were players were tackled hard, and the whistle was blown for a foul, and the Spanish or German player went over and linked hands in a kind of united determination to keep fighting it out against each other until the last minute, it seemed that for some reason sportsmanship had returned to the realm of international football. Even when the ref did blow the whistle the players didn’t attack the ref, they just went about getting ready for the free kick.
Denis Irwin made a point on RTE about the makeup of the German team after it was clear that Germany would be playing England while the other ould fellas were scoffing away with their usual wisdom relating to the fact that this game could pull England out of the doldrums. The bulk of the German team play for only four teams; Hamburg, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, and Bayern Munich and six of the team’s player’s play for Munich, including the key players, Scwheinsteiger, Lahm and Mueller.
What about Spain? Well ahead of Munich’s high player representation on a national team, is Barcelona with seven players on the Spanish team, and after that Real Madrid and Valencia had a further nine together.
Sure you could argue that in each country there are a couple of teams that dominate, but this has always been the case, and what this clearly points to is a core group of players who are very familiar with a large proportion of the team. What’s also a key factor is that Barcelona and Bayern Munich both reached the final four of the Champions League. Internazionalle, the winners, rather than fielding a strong Italian team which could have bolstered the national side’s World Cup prospects, have a squad with fifteen nationalities. On the other hand, Barcelona has seven, Bayern Munich has eight, and in both teams the foreign contingent is less than domestically produced players. Even Real Madrid, famed for its international contingent of Gallacticos has a dominant proportion of Spanish players on its team, half of whom are good enough to get onto the Spanish national team, who are now in the World Cup final. I’ve never been one to care about whether or not a club has more or less domestic players, but this is clearly showing that the biggest clubs with the most players playing in the same team in their home country has clear benefits for the progress of a national side.
I read on the ould internet the other day that Mesut Ozil turned around and criticised Wayne Rooney for saying that he was bored, and that how could he be bored when he is playing in the World Cup? While it might point to the over reliance on a superstar lifestyle by some of the game’s elite, it also points at the high morale and camaraderie of the German team. The players obviously don’t mind sharing the same airspace for a month or two, while the English players mightn’t be so keen on doing it for ninety minutes twice a season, let alone for the period of the World Cup.
So, all that being said, how did Spain actually beat Germany, a team that up to that point had scored almost twice as many goals as them? These were two teams that seemed equally matched, and equally prepared and willing to give everything to win.
I’m no Johnny Giles or Eamon Dunphy, so what I’ll do is stick with what I saw on the telly this morning. As I said I watched the Germans about three times and this was the first time that I saw Spain play. What Spain did, and they may have been doing this throughout the tournament, is that they played the game the Germans played against Argentina. They didn’t give them an inch, they were tight defensively and they weren’t afraid to pass the ball and to rely on the player who they passed it to do something similar or better. They, like Germany did against England and even more so against Argentina, played as a team that were confident and determined. What made Germany look so ordinary, or not as exceptional as they had in previous games, was they were crowded and weren’t given enough space to function. Schweinsteiger, who dominated against Argentina, hardly featured, Klosse who is lethal in the box, was forced to run at players with the ball and was easily policed away by the expert Spanish defence led by the fearless Carlos Puyol! The Spanish team had more chances and the way they played forced the Germans into long ball tactics and shots from distance. Sound familiar?
One final note on the Spanish side, who in ninety minutes made me forget all about the great football Germany played in the world cup, and this goes towards the manager, Vincente Del Bosque. After England were knocked out of the World Cup, fingers were pointed at the manager, a man who had significant success in domestic competitions, notably Siere A, the Primera Liga, and of course the Champions League. How was it, the question was asked, that a man with so much success domestically, could not produce satisfactory results from a collection of players of such a high standard? I wonder are the Spanish media in a similar state of rapture, exclaiming, how is that a manager with so much success domestically could produce such satisfactory results from a collection of players of such a high standard? I haven’t even bothered to mention Joachim Löw, who, as far as I can work out, has had less success at club level than…than…than… Steve Staunton?
So, it’s down to two teams. All those games, all those tears, all those cheers, not to mention those bloody horns that ruined a few good Sunday afternoon hangovers with the football. There have been seven different winners of the World Cup since 1930. The last time a team won for the first time and they were not the hosts was by Brazil, in Sweden, 1958. On Sunday there will be a new team on the World Cup and a new team to have one the World Cup for the first time. I’ve no idea who it will be. Exciting isn’t it?