Rise of the Red Fury, a stirring tale

Last Updated : 08 July 2010, 18:16 IST
Last Updated : 08 July 2010, 18:16 IST

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While it is the world’s most popular sporting event, the World Cup has always been as exclusionary as it has been exclusive, essentially a public event held at a private club. Only seven nations have won the title in 80 years of competition.

But an eighth champion will be named Sunday when either Spain or the Netherlands will finally be admitted beyond the velvet rope. In defeating Germany, 1-0, in Wednesday’s semifinal, Spain finally unyoked itself from the burden of being considered soccer’s chief underperformer – a team that possessed beauty but not sufficient toughness – in reaching the final for the first time.

No one can question Spain’s sturdiness and poise now, not after it won the 2008 European championship and kept its nerve in this tournament while winning three consecutive games by 1-0 in the knockout round. La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) is now at its hardiest, not most vulnerable, in the taut moments, having built a stunning record of 48-2-3 since 2007.

Wednesday’s victory came on a headed corner kick in the 73rd minute by centre-back Carles Puyol. If his tresses are outdated, though, his instinct and timing are exquisite. On the corner kick by Xavi, Puyol rushed forward from the top of the penalty area and his head struck the ball like a fist from 10 yards. Much of the beauty of the semifinal was in its struggle. Eventually, Spain prevailed with a gorgeous selfishness. It took the ball and refused to give it back, not in the ungenerous way of a petulant child but as a mesmerising and professional monopolist.

Without possession, Germany could not unfurl its counterattack. Even when it won the ball, they lost it quickly in a thicket of legs in midfield. Xabi Alonso was an able obstructionist, even if his aim was not as sharp as his tackling. Xavi was magnificent in circulating the ball like a viral e-mail. Unable to score quickly as it had in smothering
England and Argentina, Germany lost its daring and bravado. “It is extremely difficult to win the ball back. That’s what makes it so difficult. Every team playing against Spain has to work very hard,” said Joachim Loew, German coach.

In the end, familiarity and experience prevailed over emergent youth. Germany had won many fans with its multiculturalism and up-and-coming stars like Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller, but Mueller was suspended Wednesday and his team lost some verve and spontaneity in his absence. Beforehand, there had been some suggestion that Spain had not sufficiently altered its line-up since the 2008 European championships, that it might be susceptible to the assurance and energy of this budding German team.

Far from stagnant, though, Spain appeared to be at the peak of fluency and intimacy, each player in harmony with the others.  Spain’s national soccer team won the 1964 European championship and went 44 years without another major title. The World Cup became a succession of frustrating and premature exits – in the second round at home in 1982, on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals in 1986 and 2002. Spain never advanced as far as the semifinals until here in South Africa. By 2008, it had become the first team ranked No 1 in the world without ever having won the World Cup.

What is the difference now? The 2008 European championship – also a 1-0 win over Germany, brought confidence, Iniesta said Tuesday. And, he added, “The collective interest is beyond individual interest.” But nothing, though, came easy. David Villa, who was tied for the tournament lead with five goals, had an early shot smothered and missed by inches sliding onto an inviting cross from Iniesta. Xabi blasted three shots with power but without accuracy. Finally, it was left to Puyol to slam the ball home on the decisive corner kick.

With that goal, cheering for Spain at the World Cup finally carried all the way through to the final instead of being silenced in an earlier round. Not since France in 1998 has a first-time champion been crowned. Spain has a 50-50 chance on Sunday, said Joaquin Liste, a native of Barcelona now living in Johannesburg. “It was always frustrating, not getting to the final, because Spain is a big football nation,” Liste said. “But you forget the bad things quickly.”

Match stats

                           ESP             GER
*Goals                   1                   0
*Shots                 13                   5
*On target             5                   2
*Corners                7                   6
*Off-sides              1                   2
*Fouls                     0                  0
*Yellow cards         2                   3
*Possession:        51%              49%

Published 08 July 2010, 18:07 IST

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