Football wins as Spain lifts World Cup
Spain won the World Cup with the right kind of football. No one can argue that its tense 1-0 extra time victory over the Netherlands wasn't deserved.
Where some teams chose grim defense, Spain stuck to its attacking philosophy at this World Cup and, in the end, reaped the biggest reward there is. Where others hoofed balls up field and hoped, the Spanish passed, passed and passed until the goals came.
In becoming the first European nation to win the World Cup outside of Europe, Spain showed that beautiful football can be winning football, too. That positive example can only be good for the global game. Spain plays football in the way that young boys dream of when they kick balls around on pitches and streets.
A new champion, how exciting. No offense to the seven other nations that jealously monopolized the trophy until now, but football needed a fresh face. Other nations - the Netherlands, of course, but with time, why not the United States, Ghana, Portugal and others - can take heart and dream that their day might come, too.
With their World Cup winners and their Wimbledon and French Open champion Rafael Nadal, who was in Soccer City for the final, Spain can brag of being the No.1 sporting nation of 2010. A real achievement. Spain's Alberto Contador also remains in the running to defend his Tour de France title, too.
For the first time in 80 years of World Cups, Italy, Brazil, Germany or Argentina did not play the final. That broadening of football's elite is good for its popularity and future.
The Netherlands, with just 16 million people and the sixth largest economy in Europe, came very close to becoming the little nation that could.
It will be of no consolation to them, but the fluid, offensive-minded football played by Spain owes a debt to Dutch masters.
The world champion's backbone is made of players from Barcelona FC. And the most successful manager in the history of that club is Dutch, Johan Cruyff. The Dutch influence continues: Current Barca coach Pep Guardiola was in Cruyff's ''Dream Team'' that won the 1992 European Cup.
In short, the Netherlands has long been a far bigger force in football than its mere size suggests. Great thinkers of the sport, the Dutch have pollinated other countries and leagues with their ideas, skills and knowledge. That means they will, eventually, lift the World Cup. Just not here, their third time of asking. To neutralize Spanish inventiveness, the Dutch lost their own artistry, hacking down Spanish players in a blizzard of fouls and deserved yellow cards.
Referee Howard Webb showed the value of having a real expert at this level. He could, perhaps should, have sent off Nigel de Jong for his karate kick that crunched into Xabi Alonso's chest on 28 minutes. But a red card then would have ruined the final. Webb should be congratulated for trying to ensure it was decided by players and not his officiating decisions. There had already been too much of that at this World Cup.
Although governing body FIFA insists that referees got the vast majority of their calls right, they will mostly be remembered for some huge howlers. The worst was Jorge Larrionda's failure to award Frank Lampard's goal that crossed the German line. Having World Cup referees from two dozen different countries made FIFA look democratic. But the errors were such that the introduction of some technology to assist them now looks inevitable and welcome.
In another positive for football, the final was also a triumph for the notion that investing in young players is money well spent.
The Netherlands and Spain have some of the finest football schools. At least a dozen players on the pitch Sunday or ready on the benches to replace them came through Ajax's football factory, based at a complex called The Future, or its Barcelona equivalent. There is a sobering lesson there for countries like England and Italy that were old and creaky at this World Cup.
Spain's victory also made Europe a winner. It has now edged ahead of South America in World Cup wins - with 10 to South America's 9. Following Italy's triumph of 2006, the Spanish win meant back-to-back titles for Europe. That broke a cycle of the cup traveling back and forth between Europe and South America that stretched back to 1962, when Brazil successfully defended the title it first won four years earlier. Quarterfinalist Brazil now has its work cut out if it wants to rebound for 2014, when it hosts the World Cup.
Europe dominated in other ways, too. The top goal-scoring teams were Germany, with 16, and the Netherlands, which got stuck on 12. And Spain's Barcelona teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta proved to be the best midfield partnership in world football, like husband and wife in the way they read what the other is thinking.
Spain carried the swagger and confidence of a squad with a long-term habit of winning, setting the example for teams that came to the World Cup with hired-gun coaches. Success cannot be instantly bought.
The Spanish also underscored another lesson from South Africa - the best performers were teams, not individual stars.
Not by any stretch of the imagination was this a standout World Cup. There were not enough edge-of-seat moments. Drama came in dashes, it did not become the theme.
The average of just 2.27 goals per match was the second-lowest of any World Cup. Too few teams played like Germany or Argentina, hell-bent on scoring.
The first goal of the tournament - a left-footed strike by Siphiwe Tshabalala for South Africa - was also the best, both athletic and triggering vuvuzela horns that did not stop buzzing for the next month. The All England Club, rugby officials and others are absolutely right to ban those ear-splitting pests.
But, just this once, those who tooted for Spain can be forgiven. It was deserved.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org