"There is no language in our lungs/To tell the world just how we feel." -- XTC, No Language in our Lungs.
Spain 1, (the) Netherlands 0 a.e.t, 2010 World Cup Final.
Oh where to begin?
Driving home in the wake of Sunday's final match of the 2010 World Cup that XTC song popped up on my iPod. Any television nerd will recognize the tune from an episode of the cult-classic "Freaks and Geeks" during the gym class picking teams scene. (Starts at the 4:24 mark.)
Seemed like the absolute worst song to hear while you're trying to untangle your brain synapses after a very strange 120 minutes of soccer, capping off a very unusual World Cup, which saw the Third Place Play-off produce both the Golden Ball winner -- Diego Forlan -- and the Golden Boot winner -- Thomas Mueller.
So like any independent blogger worth his salt, what did I do?
The answer's fairly obvious. I broke my own personal 10-month streak of avoiding movie theaters to watch "Predators"(*) on the big screen. Suffice to say there aren't any connections to be drawn from malevolent alien hunters and what transpired at Soccer City Sunday. Hell, there isn't even a cheap, easy Carlos Puyol hair joke to be made.
(*) Not to tell anyone how to raise their children ... but ... is taking a toddler to the 8 p.m. Sunday night showing of a movie like "Predators" the right idea, like the one who couldn't stop crying in the row behind me. I don't blame the kid, he shouldn't be there in the first place. Sorry. I forgot that common sense isn't cool any more.
What made writing difficult in the immediacy of Spain's triumph could be chalked up to a lot of facts. For one, riding the Dutch bandwagon all Cup it was a gutting loss, not for me personally but I certainly felt empathy for the Oranje Army, true hearty fans who probably feel like the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox or Minnesota Vikings at this point. ... so close, yet so far away and they might need to wait another 32 years to make a final, you never know.
Nor was it due to any personal enmity for Spain.
It was just going to be tough to sit behind the laptop in my sweaty, humid, condo knowing that in a few scant hours, come Monday morning for the first time in five weeks I'd wake up without the din of the vuvuzela in my ear or the friendly voice on ESPN saying, "Hola" or "ta da" to open the broadcast.
The 2010 World Cup was over.
Even if it wasn't an utterly classic World Cup, it's simply sad to see it whisked out of our lives almost as quickly as it arrived. It was hard to watch the highlights later Sunday or even muster up the brain power to read about it, without an overwhelming sense of numbness and sadness. (Bear that in mind as you dig into this post.)
Then again, doesn't it -- cue the Desmond Hume voice -- seem like another lifetime (brother) when the U.S. playing England seemed like a big deal. Better yet, doesn't the bitter defeat to Asamoah Gyan and Ghana seem ages ago?
Nearly five weeks of one sporting tournament is probably just about right.
And that's part of the reason why we saw what happened in Soccer City Sunday.
If there's a big takeaway from South Africa -- from a pure international soccer standpoint -- it's the playing field has been leveled. Few, if any teams, are going to play at a World Cup and physically out-skill opponents and cruise to the trophy.
Despite its reactionary policies toward on-field improvements -- officiating for one -- FIFA's old boy's club can't stop the wave of globalization or the beaming of satellite television. It's not going to be able to keep teams from knowing each other inside and out at major tournaments. Time and space on the ball? In the modern-day World Cup, those come about as often as a Sasquatch sighting.
That's part of the reason why we saw Spain -- clearly the cream of the tournament -- advance through four knockout matches via 1-0 scorelines. Spain, however, were the best XI on the field, typifying a tournament where the team overshadowed the individual. Seemingly if only to prove this point, Spain's biggest star -- at least to English speakers, Fernando Torres -- faded further and further to the back of the periphery as the tournament progressed, eventually pulling up lame like an injured race horse after coming on late in extra time.
Spain, to its credit, has uncovered a system that has left the other 200-odd FIFA sanctioned nations chasing.
Primarily it's the Barcelona-style passing, possession game of Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Yet Spain, by claiming a World Cup two years after the winning the European Championship showcased its nationwide depth. In 2008, Luis Aragonés' squad wasn't Barca-junior. Don't forget the importance of guys like Marcos Senna, Santi Cazorla and Dani Güiza -- all three of whom didn't make the plane to South Africa. Or the influence of David Silva in Austria/Switzerland and who was pushed to the shadows in South Africa, scapegoated after the World Cup opening loss to the Swiss -- which too seems like a dog's age ago. Hell, at the Euro, Spain got through the knockout rounds with a dinged up David Villa, who came off after 34 minutes in the semifinal win over Russia.
If anything, Spain had more continuity in defense with Iker Casillas in net, Carlos Puyol, Joan Capdevilla and Sergio Ramos all back, with Gerard Pique stepping in for Carlos Marchena the only change.
It's nice, too, to play an extra time match and have a player like Cesc Fabregas to bring on in reserve.
The Spanish blueprint is out there.
Now try and stop it. Amazingly, in the last two years, only the U.S.(*) and Switzerland have figured out a way to stop it.
(*) Guess when it's all said-and-done, beating Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup has to be Bob Bradley's greatest achievement with the USMNT, right?
It was pretty clear that Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk(*) watched Jose Mourinho's game tapes from the recent Champions League, trying to copy what Inter Milan did in the return leg at the Camp Nou in the semifinals against Barcelona.
(*) If van Marwijk has one tactical regret, it's sticking with a completely useless Robin van Persie all tournament. However you want to slice it, the Arsenal-man didn't have a good tournament.
Van Marwijk didn't exactly have the same defensive tools as Mourinho to slow down the diminutive Spanish attackers, but he used the heavy-footed challengers Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong as enforcers. Was it elegant? Was de Jong's (*) Johny Cage shadow kick to Xabi Alonso's solar-plexus a straight red card? Was English ref Howard Webb having way to much of an impact on a championship game? (or more honestly, was he handed an impossible task)?
(*) Aside from that one red card-able offense, de Jong did seem on his best behavior.
Yes on all fronts.
The Dutch on Sunday in Soccer City were more Jaap Stam than Johan Cruyff.
That said, for 116 minutes van Marwijk's clutch-and-gasp, frustrate, gamplan worked. We saw the anti-soccer tactics turn Sergio Busquets into crying for a foul on seeming every play, even Iniesta wasn't immune to the Webb-sponsored bitch fest.
And if Rafael van der Vaart is an inch or two taller and his leg block's Iniesta's winner, van Marwijk might have ended up an immortal in Holland. Instead, people will always look at those Oranje shirts just a little differently than they once did.
What, though, were the Dutch supposed to do? Sit back, let Spain pass the ball around all day with ease, eventually producing a goal? To the Netherlands credit, it went down swinging and had its chances to win the match.
This, of course, is the trouble we sometimes find ourselves in with soccer.
Calling it the "Beautiful Game" is both a blessing and a curse. For whatever reason, aesthetics on the field seem to count. It's crazy that a sport exists where large segments of its fan base would rather watch a graceful loss than an ugly win. But this has been a part of soccer since the early days, since the Austrian Wunderteam, who seemed content to conduct a ballet on the field, with scoring goals and winning matches an ancillary concern.
A win is a win, or it seems that should be enough to satisfy every sport except (sometimes) soccer.
The man who'll probably go to his deathbed debating these eternal soccer questions will be Arjen Robben, who after the last 31 days was proven to be a truly a one-of-a-kind sort. A deadly, dangerous ... diver. A 25-year-old going on 75-year-old, skilled, assassin, whose engine is more finicky than a high-end race car.
Twice in the final Robben broke up the middle, latched onto a pass and found himself 1-v-1 with Iker Casillas. First the soon-to-be sainted Spanish keeper flicked away his effort with a diving leg save -- again fractions of inches -- with something off the Real Madrid training ground.
There was a reason Casillas' post-game tears might be the enduring legacy of this match. He, in his heart, probably knew just how close Spain came to losing, making the eventual win taste all the more sweeter.
The second play, well, Robben will probably regret that in extra time of the World Cup final he decided to take the noble course of action. This was the man who I slaughtered all tournament on Twitter for having glass bones. This was the man whose diving and writhing on the ground in a ball became an Internet meme. This was the man who goes to ground after a rough sneeze by his marker.
Only at the time almost everyone could have rationalized him doing a belly flop to the grass, he stayed on his feet, instead of likely getting Puyol sent off or giving the Dutch a dangerous free kick at the edge of the area.
It was stunning.
To paraphrase the adidas Zinedine Zidane ad one final time, "Suddenly showing some balls in a contest of diving ... the irony."
Robben, for a welcome change, plays by the rules and likely costed his team a better chance at winning the World Cup.
But that's soccer. The "dark arts" are part of the game. Part of why we keep coming back. Perhaps there's something to be said for a sport that still seems to have plenty of shades of gray, whereas most other sports are either black or white. Maybe Sepp Blatter isn't so crazy after all, thinking controversy gets people talking.
This match certainly had talking points, namely from the book of Webb.
Sure, the amount of yellow cards was obscene. What killed me seemed to be the inconsistency throughout the match, of what was and wasn't a foul. It's one thing to allow physical play, but Webb's scales of justice slid back and forth way too much.
Look at Johnn Heitinga, finally sent off -- rightfully -- for bringing down Iniesta in extra time. His first booking came in the first half on a play which Webb was only a few feet away from and didn't even deem a foul until the Spanish player stayed on the ground and the ball was kicked out of bounds.
Not to slaughter Webb, since the Dutch tactics would have made it a challenge for any ref, but he was in over his head. Unless we can get Pierluigi Collina out of retirement, not sure how it improves by 2014.
Though the fouls overshadowed the game, I do have to say I found myself on the edge of my seat from the 60th minute on. Yes, it was choppy and start-stop. Yet I was in rapt attention since it seemed each team, when given free range in the opponent's half was ready to make something happen. It wasn't a classic by any means, but not as bad as it may have seemed in real time.
A good question to ask yourself was when was the last time a Cup Final in any soccer classification was a thrilling match? Liverpool's comeback over West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup final? Liverpool's all-time classic win over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final?
It's a shame that the World Cup is such a wonderful tournament for 63 matches and then for its final act it usually lays an egg. But that's a Cup Final in any form of soccer, nerves are high, the chance for negative tactics, the pressure, etc. It all adds up and in today's game -- teams can slog their way through them. The days of teams opening it up and playing a wide-open, carefree match are probably long gone.
Fortunately it didn't end in penalty kicks.
Nobody wanted to read about that argument proposed by American sports writers over the next four years, though reading their silly ideas to resolve extra time matches are fun.
Anyway, I'm bummed out. Bummed out the Dutch lost. Bummed out the World Cup has come and gone and now we must all wait for another four years.
Thanks for everyone whose stopped by this here little slice of the Inter-nets during the last month. I appreciate each and every one of you, even if you're just Googling pictures of Bastian Schweinsteiger's girlfriend. If you're new to the site, don't worry the fun doesn't stop here and the Premier League season and the madness it brings it barely a month away.
At least this World Cup finally put the out-dated idea that Americans don't care about soccer to bed. The last five weeks aren't setting off a sea change across the states, but let's say there's more than just a few minor soccer beach heads. The seeds planted years ago have taken root, grown and spawned seeds of there own.
This, as always, remains a story to debate and discuss the next four years, though I hope we can finally get past our collective insecurities of being a soccer fan in the U.S. After 2010 there's no more shame associated with loving the sport in the States. We can thank Landon Donovan & Co, with an assist from Ian Darke (and all of ESPN) for that.
However, unless you're a Spanish fan, still reveling in the glory of becoming an all-time iconic, great side, Monday morning must feel a lot glummer than most. It's almost cruel, to have this much fun picking apart and enjoying a sporting event, only to have it ripped away from us almost as quickly as it arrived.
Perhaps there's a reason it only rolls around every four years.
That majority of casual American sports fans, though, will move on, find the next event to care about. By Tuesday they'll probably have forgotten what the word Jabulani even meant. Hopefully as the dust settles the "Americans caring about soccer," doesn't land in the same head-scratching file as things that were bizarrely popular for a period in time -- like Limp Bizkit.
Me? I'll try to support MLS in the next few weeks as I prep for the EPL season, the soccer world will move on, but for now it's a system shock waking up without a World Cup game to look forward to.
I'll miss: the ironic irony of Zinedine Zidane; Joachim Loew's touchline fashion show; Vincente del Bosque's 'stach; Dirk Kuyt; "World Cup Primetime" on a 2 a.m. replay; Andy Gray's digital chalk board; Ruud Gullit, Roberto Martinez and Steve McManaman; Forlan's one-man virtuoso attacking performance; Muller's goofy face and goofier haircut; Kevin-Prince Boateng's neck tats; people bitching about the vuvuzela; people bitching about the Jabulani; ESPN's African music intros and of course, Go Go USA, etc.
In closing, there was another song I heard on my drive back from the movie theater -- "Monsters" -- by Band of Horses.
Think it sums up that empty pit in all our soccer-loving, World Cup gorging stomachs.
"Though to say we got much hope
If I am lost it's only for a little while"
You know what, though, 2014 in Brazil will be here before we know it.
And as a U.S. fan that can only fill me with one emotion -- hope.
* * *
Finally, congrats to the owner of "The Ghost of John O'Brien" for coming out on top of the Yahoo! World Cup pick 'em league. Also a tip of the hat to "My Technical Area Itches" who picked the most games correct with 38. ... I screwed up trying to go for it early, picking Portugal to beat Spain. D'Oh.
In the ESPN league, the tremendously named "Danny Dubersteins" took first with a fine showing, nailing 3/4 in the semifinals, placing in the 100th percentile.
Well played, all.
Keep your eyes peeled for Premier League Fantasy, it's coming soon.
"There is no language in our lungs/To tell the world just how we feel." -- XTC, No Language in our Lungs.