Monday, July 12, 2010

If there are Chelsea-supporting Dutchmen out there...

Then this guy is surely your least favorite player of all-time. I'm eagerly looking forward to the update to the I Scored a Goal at the FIFA World Cup Final documentary that riveted me last Saturday afternoon: "my nombre es Andres, y meti gol en la final del mundial."

I'm going to start my collection of unhinged thoughts with a predictable shout-out to Spain's players. I got a text from a friend last night asking "is it me, or are Spain's players more humble than most?" (This friend supports England. Do with that fact what you will.) Iniesta chose what is surely the biggest moment of his life to pay homage to Dani Jarque, a friend who played for Barca's cross-town rival, Espanyol, and who died of a heart attack last fall. Sergio Ramos went to the podium with an homage to Antonio Puerta, a teammate with Sevilla who died of a heart attack in 2008. Maybe I'm especially sensitive to athletes thinking about people other than themselves after the LeBrongasm of the past few days. Or maybe I'm just a fan of these players and I see character in mundane places. That said, it's not just that the right team won yesterday on merit; the right players won, as well.

Other thoughts:

OK, it's probably not a lottery: Was I the only one who was thinking that the Dutch would have been favorites in a penalty shootout? Spain had taken off its two penalty takers: David Villa and Xabi Alonso. The prospect of Fernando Torres taking a penalty when he is shorn of confidence was not an appealing prospect for Spain. Plus, the Spanish would have been under more pressure because they were the favorites, both in the tournament and in the match itself. Spain’s only advantage in penalties would have been Iker Casillas, who saved Spain’s jamon against Paraguay, as well as the shootout against Italy in ’08.

About those first 45 minutes, guys: To steal a term from The Guardian’s podcast, I’m a member of the Tiki Taka Taliban. I love the way that Spain play football because I love passing and teamwork. The patterns that Spain weave are hypnotic in a good way. In a test between technique and industry, I’ll take the former every time. That said, it’s hard to explain why Spain struggle to score goals. The most obvious and partisan explanation is that opponents bunker in against them, which depresses scores. However, that doesn’t explain why Spain struggle to score, especially in first halves. Spain played seven knock-out matches in Euro ’08 and this World Cup. They did not concede a goal in any of those seven matches. However, they scored only eight goals, seven after halftime. It’s hard to pick on a team that just made history in all sorts of ways, but if Vicente del Bosque is looking for an area of improvement heading into the Euro ’12 cycle, he should be thinking about how Spain can get on the board in the first 45 minutes. Maybe the maturation of Pedro and Navas will give Spain the direct dribbler that the team needs on the right wing? Spain need something so they can score without having to wear their opponents down like the Red Army.

Van Bomination: I’ll repeat what I said on Saturday afternoon: this was the least likeable Dutch team of my lifetime. 13-year old Michael was captivated by Rijkaard, Gullit, van Basten, and Koeman; I seriously doubt that there were many 13-year olds watching the match yesterday and deciding that they would cheer for the Dutch going forward. Jonathan Wilson nails it:

A fourth 1-0 win in a row doesn't tell the full story; Spain had none of the control it had possessed in the previous three rounds, as the Netherlands effectively kicked it out of its rhythm. An open extra time gave the game some credit, but this was a match ruined by Dutch brutality. Referee Howard Webb was booed by the crowd and will no doubt be harangued by pundits, but the greatest share of the blame belongs to the Netherlands and its negativity. The goodwill built up by years of attractive football was severely depleted by 120 sorry minutes. A more defensive approach is one thing; borderline anti-football is something else.
Rafael Hongstein hits a similar note:

For once, the Dutch will not be remembered as gallant losers but as the team that conspired to steal the World Cup from its rightful owners and nearly got away with it. It's a new sensation for the Dutch, an ample reflection of their new self-awareness as a team with obvious limitations. You might say it’s progress, of some sort. But it won't feel that way in Amsterdam on Sunday night.

Because I'm American, I need to think in list form: so where does this Spain team rank in terms of the best of all-time? I usually avoid discussing teams that came before I started watching the sport, so we're going to leave '70 Brazil, the Magnificent Magyars, and the Austrian Wunderteam out of the discussion. Before this tournament, I would have said that the '00 France side was the best international team that I have ever seen. (Cue an angry e-mail from Klinsi about '90 West Germany in 3, 2, 1...) The '98 side was very good, but lacked a little punch up front, as evidenced by their punchless performances against Paraguay and Italy when Zidane was suspended. The '00 side had the solidity of the '98 back line, but it added a more confident Henry and Trezeguet up front. This Spain side is right up there with the great France team. Yes, Spain won every knock-out game by a single goal, but thinking back, the '00 France team beat Spain 2-1 (with Raul missing a late penalty after some typical insanity from Fabien Barthez), Portugal on a penalty in extra time, and then Italy on an extra time winner from Trezeguet after a late equalizer (and a bad miss from Del Piero that would have put the game away for the Azzurri). The point is this: the margins in football are narrow and even the best teams play close games in the knock-out stages of international tournaments.

One final note: I bought Phil Steele on Saturday. Normal programming is right around the corner.

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