World Cup: Ode to the perfect pass
For the climax of the World Cup, it is all coming down to the
art of the perfect pass.
The Spanish proved in Wednesday’s semifinal against Germany that
they are wizards at soccer’s fundamental skill. They wove passing
webs so intricate that the Germans really didn’t have that much to
do – except lose. They duly obliged, going down 1-0.
The other semifinal winner, the Netherlands, also has a master
of passing. Wesley Sneijder has been getting the ball from Point A
to B with unerring accuracy all season for his club, Inter Milan.
One example: his pass from the halfway line that landed at the feet
of Samuel Eto’o in a Champions League match against Chelsea. Eto’o
collected gratefully, beat his marker, scored. Thanks, Wesley.
Having won pretty much every trophy there is this season with
Inter, Sneijder then packed his passing skills in a suitcase and
brought them to South Africa.
If you missed his perfectly flighted cross-field pass to Arjen
Robben against Slovakia, then jump onto the Internet and treat
yourself to the highlight reel. From deep on the opposite side of
the field, Sneijder delivered the ball so perfectly into the path
of the onrushing Robben that the winger didn’t have to break his
stride. He collected it like a warm handshake, cut to his left and
Spain and the Netherlands’ shared mastery of passing is a big
reason why both will play in Sunday’s World Cup final.
They have tamed the Jabulani ball that seems so light and quick
in the thin air at altitude in South Africa. With their passing
skills, the finalists have fended off other, less intricate styles
and philosophies of play.
To give credit where it is due, Germany had also been one of the
best passing sides of this World Cup before they fell to Spain.
The Germans have been charging up the field with one, two, three
swift passes, often topping the movement with a goal. That is how
they dismantled Argentina and embarrassed the tired, jaded old men
They played in South Africa with the fearlessness and
self-confidence of youth. This was one of Germany’s youngest-ever
World Cup squads. They clearly appreciated the World Cup ride,
unlike France’s callow, sour-faced players who just looked like
they wanted to go home and did so in disgrace.
In short, the Germans played with such enthusiasm and flair that
they became the new Brazil – a team cool to love and support when
your own favorite got knocked out.
The Germans’ misfortune was to meet Spain on its best day so far
of the World Cup.
Until now, the Spanish hadn’t really lived up their billing. The
team is packed with players from Barcelona, the club that revers
attractive, passing soccer, so expectations were high. For Barca,
Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez are among the best in the world
at threading passes past defenders and bamboozled opposing
midfields. Yet, in South Africa, the Spanish seemed at times to be
a one-man show revolving around goal-scorer David Villa.
Well, that changed against the Germans. With precision passing,
Spain turned this semifinal into one of the most lopsided matches
of the World Cup and made a believer of German coach Joachim
“I am sure Spain will win the title,” Loew said. “They
circulate the ball well.”
Loew does understatement well, too.
Ironically, the Spanish goal against Germany came not from a
masterful pass but from a header by Carlos Puyol. Such is life.
Sometimes, Spain seems so intent on finding the perfect pass
that its play can get over-intricate. That is a problem that
sometimes hurts Barcelona, too – for example, in its Champions
League loss to Sneijder’s Inter.
But let’s not get too fussy, because a beautiful passing game is
a joy when it works.
Hear that Spain and Sneijder? We’re hoping you surpass
yourselves in Sunday’s final.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org