Netherlands, Spain eye chance to enter elite club

A new champ will emerge on Sunday, making it a group of eight
Last Updated 08 July 2010, 17:06 IST

Carlos Puyol looks so much bigger in the photos, but in reality he’s short for a central defender, reminding me of Yogi Berra, who could hit a ball off his shoe tops and send it over a building in the biggest of games.

Puyol can leap beyond his 5 feet 10 inches and did it in the 73rd minute Wednesday night to give Spain a 1-0 victory over Germany. The fan behind me was yelling, “Arriba, Puyol!” – the Spanish version of Go! or Charge!

Spain is going to the final of the World Cup, to play the Netherlands in Johannesburg on Sunday evening. Now, the world will have a new soccer champion, a complete service for eight, which is a very good thing for the sport because it takes away a layer of mystique from the usual suspects who come into every World Cup with the label: Won it before; can win it again.

The inner core consists of Brazil, which won it five times; Italy, which won it four; Germany, which won it three times as West Germany; and Argentina, which won twice. And, of course, Uruguay won it twice in the earlier years, and France and England each had one glorious shot.

But it has seemed somewhat like a club, intimidating everybody. “I’d like to see Spain meet the Netherlands in the final – two pleasing contenders, one new champion – but in the end I see Brazil. I always see Brazil, until proven otherwise.” That’s what I wrote before the tournament.

The aura drags you in. Not hard, with mystical Brazil. The thinking is, the pretenders, the outsiders, the fancy clubs that move the ball and invent stuff, they always get knocked off. But now Spain or the Netherlands will take a seat at the table set for eight, holding a place for all the other nations with some talent, some money, some aspirations.

Now it can be said: Get a generation going. Nurture it. Win a regional title. Knock on the door. It can be done. There is no secret handshake, no Skull and Bones secrecy. Just play football. Spain and the Netherlands will do what they do on Sunday.

Sneijder and Robben will look for their main chance, while Iniesta and Xavi will move the ball around for the Spanish on the theory that the other team cannot score if it does not have the ball. Worked Wednesday night. Nothing against the Germans.

They played marvellously here for five matches but were slightly less in the semifinal, whacking away Spanish efforts but not showing the same buccaneering intensity they had shown in demolishing Diego Maradona’s makeshift back line.

They did not test Spain enough, or maybe they could not. “I have to congratulate the Spanish team,” said the German coach, Joachim Loew, who ought to be rehired for another cycle even before the consolation match Saturday. Loew continued: “The past two, three years, Spain has been the most skilled team of all, and they showed it tonight. They circulated the ball quickly, and we weren’t able to get back to our plan. We had our inhibitions. I think Spain deserved to win this match, absolutely.”

He was a sportsman, and so were the players of both teams, the Spaniards seeking out the Germans on the field after the match, hugging them, lodge members who had belted each other around for 90 minutes, then greeted each other with dignity.

Ultimately, Spain wore down Germany, not the other way around. This is the tension of this sport, that billions of people around the world totally get. Test, probe, counter, break through. Break through with Arriba Puyol!

A made-in-Barcelona goal. Andres Iniesta of FC Barcelona set up the corner kick with a move down the left side. Xavi from Barcelona sent the ball out from the goalmouth. And here came Arriba Puyol! 32 years old, from La Pobla de Segur in the Lleida section of Catalonia, a lifer in the great Barcelona club, tramping up from his defender position and elevating himself in a vacuum.

During Spain’s great run for the past two years, I’ve grown to enjoy Puyol, partly because he reminds me of my favourite defender, Franco Baresi of AC Milan and Italy. Now, Puyol has put the coalescing soccer nation of Spain into the final, and in his everyman way given an Arriba Puyol! to other aspiring soccer nations, big and small – China maybe, the Reds of South Korea, Ghana or some other African nation, Mexico, Chile, maybe even the next generation from the United States. The World Cup champions table is not some closed club. It’s going up to eight on Sunday. Listen to Arriba Puyol! Take a leap.

(Published 08 July 2010, 17:06 IST)

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