Spain manages to shine in dark final

Published Jul. 12, 2010 2:11 a.m. EDT

And what fair play from the Netherlands, who racked up an astonishing nine cards, including a red, in a game where their clear intent was to kick the Spanish into submission.

Spain at least won playing something close to the Beautiful Game. It at least attempted to play the triangular-passing style that has seduced many observers, despite the fact that foul after foul reduced it in the first half to ducking and covering.

But there wasn’t much, was there? More excitement seemed to be found in spikes ground into thighs than silky passing. And so irate were both teams at game’s end that jerseys remained on.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this tournament saw more teams than ever play not to lose rather than taking the risks to win. As a result of these pack-the-back-then-hack tactics, we saw some dreadful games, and not just from minnows like Greece and North Korea, who were clinging to life, but also from supposed giants like France and Italy.


And since these tactics worked — ask Paraguay! — why not try them in a final? So, for 116 tedious minutes, Holland played some harsh football, and we all got to see what our media culture’s obsession with “toughness” has wrought on a game we used to call “beautiful.”

What has happened to big-time football is simple. We’ve allowed a culture of negativity to creep into a sport that once prized artistry and flow as much as the result. There used to be no shame in losing as long as your team played well.

No more.

Now, every imagined mistake, every perceived slight, and every wayward result is picked over, 24/7 in an atmosphere that rewards cynicism and punishes ambition. Results are all that matter, that "bottom line" everybody loves to refer to.

It’s poisoned the game at every level.

Think of the ball, for example, an item that FIFA dropped into a major tournament purely for financial reasons. The fact that it wouldn’t work in the wintry conditions didn’t seem to even to occur to the game’s governors -- what mattered is that they and adidas got a paycheck.

Think of the games you sat through. Some of them were awful. About ten teams didn’t deserve to be at the World Cup in the first place, but because of FIFA’s expansionist aims, 32 teams now compete.

And since they added those extra eight teams in 1998, the quality of the Cup has taken a nosedive. Switzerland, Greece, Cameroon, North Korea, Honduras — are these really world-caliber teams?

No, they aren’t. And because they don’t have a remote chance to win — and hope not to be humiliated in front of billions of people — they must play a defensive style that strips out football’s charms.

Think of the refereeing. It stunk. But part of the reason it was so poor is that FIFA won’t give the men in the middle tools to keep up with the pace of the modern game. FIFA has been absurdly combative about even the suggestion of video replay or goal-line tech, putting their officials in a quandary. The whole world now sees what the refs miss, because we get to see it super slo-mo from nineteen angles — while they get a millisecond. And millions of dollars hang in the balance.

Many suspected that it would take a major gaffe at a big showcase to change this, and Frank Lampard, Carlos Tevez and Maurice Edu gave FIFA three good shots to the jaw, this last month, finally arousing the American media to the whims and injustices of the world’s game.

And so, we came to this final. What could have been a flowing celebration of all the things we love about the game turned into a workmanlike slog. There was so much talent on the field Sunday night, and most of it was left to waste.

The lessons of this Cup are clear, but it is uncertain whether football will hear them. The diving, the fouling, and the shirt-pulling and wrestling in the box have to be removed from the game. The referees must get help from readily available technology. FIFA must resist the urge to milk every dollar out of every opportunity, as tempting — and corrupting — as that may be. Fans will have to start voting with their eyes and their wallets. And the powerful American media cannot avert their eyes for another four years.

Right now, the World Cup isn’t the best football in the world -- not even close. It used to be and it's time for FIFA to return the Cup to its rightful place. This 2010 final was simply one more reminder that it's time to act.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for