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 football'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.
Having won pretty much every trophy there is this season with Inter, Sneijder then packed up his passing skills 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 on-rushing Robben that the winger didn't have to break his stride. He collected it like a warm handshake, cut to his left and scored.
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 England.
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 reveres 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 bamboozling 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 lopsided and made a believer of German coach Joachim Loew.
``I am sure Spain will win the title,'' Loew said. ``They move 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