After defeating England 4-1 and then Argentina 4-0 in the first two matches of the World Cup knockout stage, the Germans peaked wonderfully and early.
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Or was it really that Germany had flattered to deceive?
Germany’s performance in losing to Spain in the World Cup semifinal in Durban had little in common with their previous two matches. This was a German performance that had more in common with those in the group stages against Ghana, when they labored to a 1-0 victory in Soccer City, and against Serbia, when they lost 1-0 in Port Elizabeth.
And so perhaps there were really two German teams after all. The Germany of the slick counter-attack (against England, Argentina and Australia) and the Germany lacking in ideas (against Serbia, Ghana and Spain).
It might be said that the Germany style pays dividends only against teams lacking in ideas. Against opposition with class, Germany looks hardworking and enthusiastic, but unsophisticated. Some have said that this Germany team will flourish at Euro 2012 or even the 2014 World Cup in Brazil if it continues to develop. But here in South Africa, the team overachieved.
History shows that World Cup-winning teams must peak at the right time. The group stages are not the time to peak. Neither, it seems, are the early knockout stages. The time to peak is in the semifinal and final.
By reaching the final, Spain is probably where it deserves to be, even if it did not appear that way when they lost 1-0 to Switzerland in its opening match. But here tonight in Durban, the victory was laced with irony.
In the end, after all the pretty patterns, all the art, all the midfield triangles that defied mathematical logic, it took the type of goal that owes its origins to the pub teams of England to push La Furia over the hump. Spain is in the World Cup final via the simplest manner possible – a solitary headed Carles Puyol goal direct off a corner kick.
Spain has won each of its past three matches by 1-0, with each goal coming late on – seemingly when its opponents were tiring. Perhaps there is a reason for all of this fruitless art. Perhaps they are taking a leaf out of Arsenal circa 1989 — 1-0 to the Arsenal.
Spain has been the master of two-touch football. The philosophy was always the same — early, easy, and play it to the feet. The problem for spectators was that it quickly became boring. The problem for Spain was that good organization could make the passing seem like a fruitless training exercise and at times, that is exactly how it has come across.
Only in the latter stages, when Germany tired but still felt the need to commit men forwards, did Spain create an abundance of chances. Indeed, no team has created more chances in this World Cup – and no team has missed more. Spain has reached the final by scoring just seven goals. And none of those has been scored by Fernando Torres, supposedly the best striker in the world.
There is little doubt that Spain has the best midfield in the world – Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Andrés Iniesta can be sublime with their passing and movement – but this World Cup has revealed the value of defending in depth and working hard.
Little wonder that this 2010 version of the World Cup has rivaled Italia 90 for being the tournament with the fewest goals. Little wonder that this has been the tournament of the team rather than the individual. Spain has its great individuals – its celebrities – but it has reached the final by collective effort rather than individual class.
It has been the nature of World Cup 2010.
Germany entered the tournament as the team of no stars. Even Miroslav Klose, the leading scorer at WC 2006, could walk down the streets of any city outside Germany and not be noticed. And yet, if he scores twice in the third-place match against Uruguay in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, he will become the greatest World Cup striker of all time.
But only one goal mattered here in Durban. It came from the defender – Chucky Puyol, the player least like the team; the player more German in hair style than Spanish; the bastion of organization and sheer hard work.
There was nothing pretty about the goal that won the match, but one could argue that Spain won it before a ball was kicked; Spain won because, tactically, it was light years ahead of Germany; Spain won because Germany’s style of play was too simple and too contrived.
The World Cup final is usually – but not always – between the right two teams. In Soccer City on Sunday, Spain and Holland will be the right teams for the right occasion.
England was too hyped. Argentina was too naïve. Brazil was too error-prone. Germany was too easy to work out.
For Spain, however, there is a sense that their best is yet to come. And hopefully the same can be said of Holland.
Nick Webster is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com.