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What do an unwashed cashmere sweater, a national anthem with no words, and an erudite octopus have in common?

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Answer: The World Cup.

Spain

So here we are. The final stage of the World Cup. A competition filled with utter disappointments, pleasant surprises, heartbreak, and the power of youth. Spain and the Netherlands will go head to head in pursuit of their respective nation’s first ever World Cup trophy. We will see who will prevail. Until then, here’s a quick overview of last week’s quarterfinal and semifinal matches.

1) Brazil vs. Netherlands

Brazil came in as the undisputed champs, at least in their own minds, and in the first 15 minutes they showed their athleticism, guile, creativity, and superiority against the Dutch who were chasing the game. Felipe Melo, the Brazilian defensive midfielder, started the game as the hero and ended it, unceremoniously, as the villain. His sublime through ball to an in-stride Robinho gave me goosebumps, while his childish petulance and histrionics made me cringe. Melo’s rise and fall in the match closely mirrored how the Brazilians played. They started off well, performing in the superb, only to regress to playing like a wounded animal with no place to hide. The Dutch deserved to go through. For their part, the second half was a clinical exhibition of possession and movement.

2) Ghana vs. Uruguay

This game was a true heartbreaker for the neutral fan. With all the hopes and aspirations of a continent on their shoulders, the Black Stars of Ghana were unable to advance to the semifinals of the competition. The game was theirs to win or lose and Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s star striker, missed his penalty in the 120th minute. Regarding the handball incident that led to the penalty, the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that any soccer player would have done the same thing. While I find the hand ball reprehensible and unfortunate, it was the only play that Luis Suarez had to keep his team in the game. By handing the ball he knew he would be ejected but it luckily (didn’t feel that way at the time) left the fate of the game in the hands of his keeper and the fallibility of the opposition’s kick taker. Gyan missed the penalty kick and Uruguay stayed alive. Well played. Poor penalties sealed Ghana’s fate and left me scratching my head. Not all is lost for Ghana though–they are the reigning champions of the U-20 World Cup and should figure in the World Cup of 2014.

The Netherlands

3) Germany vs. Argentina

Germany absolutely demolished Argentina 4-0 in an impressive exhibition of counterattacking soccer. Argentina failed to adapt their game and remained narrow in their attack with Leo Messi, Carlos Tévez, and Gonzalo Higuaín continually frustrated by the stout German defense. Their midfield lacked creativity while their defense was finally exposed with Gabriel Heinze and Nicolás Otamendi horribly dismantled by the speed of Thomas Müller, Miroslav Klose, and Lukas Podolski.

4) Spain vs. Paraguay

This game started as a bore and then turned into a white-knuckler with penalties on both sides of the pitch within 5 minutes of each other. As expected, Spain dominated possession, leaving Paraguay to chase the game for the majority of the match while creating sporadic opportunities in the front of the Spanish goal. Spain deserved to go through but left a lot to be desired by only scoring one against the pesky Paraguayans.

Semifinal recap:

1) Uruguay vs. Netherlands

This high-scoring affair sure had its moments. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s master-class strike was one for the ages. While scoring three goals, the Dutch still looked quite vulnerable in the back with Khalid Boulahrouz continually making things interesting on the right side of the defense. When asked what the difference was between the 2010 Dutch team and those of the past (’94,’98), the current crop of players stated that they expected to win regardless of how they got there. Long gone are the days of playing beautifully but not getting the results. They have the confidence and expectation to win but the “Dutch Way” is no longer their modus operandi. Check out this illuminating article by Raphael Honigstein about Dutch soccer and the death of total football.

Uruguay was missing the services of the suspended Suarez – leaving Diego Forlan to create on his own chances, which he did – and the sturdy defender Diego Lugano who would have provided more of a test against the wily and melodramatic Arjen Robben. Uruguay can be proud of making it to the semifinals for the first time since 1970 and will most certainly make noise in Brazil in 2014. Brazil will hope that they don’t. Some Cocktail Fodder for you: Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 final in the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janiero 2-1. A rash of suicides in the country befell the country, as well as national competition to change the colors of the Brazilian team uniforms. A 19 year old came up with the winning design and won a yearlong internship with the national team.

Goal of the tournament:

The Prize

2) Spain vs. Germany

The youthful multicultural team of Germany finally met its match in the polished, methodical, geometrically ascetically pleasing, near lull-inducing Spanish squad (whew!). Not even a debonair coach with the unwashed lucky blue cashmere sweater could prepare his team well enough. From the beginning of the match one could tell that the Spanish were going to dictate the pace of the match with the Germans occasionally mounting a threatening counterattack. Now, there is something rather interesting and sobering about the Spanish starting 11 that is worth noting: the majority of them ply their trade at either Real Madrid or Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga. At the start of each season all the teams in La Liga, from Getafe to Real Madrid, have the same number of points (Check out the Alphabetized 2010-2011 standings) However, once the ball is kicked, the season is eventually predetermined with the only tension in the campaign revolving around whether Barcelona will continue its recent dominance or if Real Madrid can overtake them. Valencia finished in third place last year with 25 points between them and second place Real Madrid!  It is only natural that the national team be made up of the players from both squads as they are not only the leagues best paid but also the best players pound for pound. I like to think of this Spanish squad as Barcelona plus 5.

Where it gets even more interesting is in the identity of the player who scored the winning goal in yesterday’s semifinal to propel the team into the World Cup Finals for the first time. Carles Puyol, the shaggy-locked central defender, is from Catalonia; one of the 17 semi-autonomous regions of Spain. Spain could lift the World Cup for the first time thanks in large part to the talent pool generated by FC Barcelona; a well-established Catalonian institution and a sporting representation/symbol of Catalonian independence. I find this quite remarkable. General Franco would be rolling in his grave if he saw what was happening on the pitch.

A World Cup soothsayer?

Here is some more fun Cocktail Fodder for you: the Spanish national anthem has no words. It is one of the few in the world devoid of words. Why is this? Because the regionalism of Spain makes it virtually impossible to create a song that encapsulates what it means to be a “Spaniard.” From Galicia over to Catalonia and down to Andalucía, one finds areas that are politically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the central government of Madrid. When one of the ESPN commentators noticed that none of the Spanish players were singing the national anthem I almost threw my drink at the screen (not really, but you get my point).

Patrick Cox’s podcast The World in Words from Public Radio International has two excellent episodes in which he touches upon the Spanish national anthem and whether the 2009 Champions league win by Barcelona could be hailed as a win for all Spaniards– definitely worth a listen. Here is the main page (http://patrickcox.wordpress.com/) with the topics of Spain coming up in the first and fifty sixth episode of the podcast.

Finally, check out this article about the “psychic” octopus who correctly predicted that Spain would beat Germany keeping its streak of correct match predictions alive: http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2010/jul/08/soccer-octopus-world-cup-final

Enjoy the final. Until next time, cheers.