Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Final Two!

With Spain defeating Germany today, history as been made (again).  Only 7 teams have ever hoisted the World Cup trophy (Brazil 5, Italy 4, W Germany 3, Argentina 2, Uruguay 2, England 1, France 1) in the 18 tournaments held over 76 years (1930 - 2006).  On Sunday, an 8th team will forever gain admittance to the group of World Cup champions.

It takes something pretty special to breakthrough on the biggest stage.  The last team to finally win one was France in 1998 due to Zidane's wizardry, and beautifully balding head (twice).  Before that, Argentina finally emerged victorious in 1978 after years of inferiority to their Brazilian rivals simply because of the genius of one Maradona.  In 1966, England finally won their one and only title in the 8th edition of a tournament that they, as progenitors of the game, probably think they should have dominated from the beginning, and it was probably mostly due to the fact that they hosted.  In fact, the 3 aforementioned teams were all WC hosts when they finally broke through.

The other winners too, Uruguay, Italy, W Germany and Brazil, managed to win their first titles in the first 6 Cups, mostly at home.  Uruguay won the inaugural tournament at home ('30), Italy won the 2nd tournament also at home ('34), and Germany snagged its first title in Switzerland ('54), which is practically home anyway.  However, Brazil, of all countries, shockingly fell short of winning in 1950 when they hosted.

Also interestingly, this will be the first WC in history to not have one of these 4 teams competing in the championship game: Argentina, Italy, Germany and Brazil.

I think its fitting that Germany lost today.  The best possession team vs the best counter-attacking team made for a great matchup.  But the fact is, Spain proved that the best defense is a great offense.  You can't counter when you've been chasing the ball the whole game.  You also might lose concentration on defending set pieces when you're tired, which is exactly how Puyol was alone for his entire 7 yard run-up and header for the winning goal.  Spain's possession so choked off Germany's attack that they really only had 1 real goalscoring chance that I remember.  Mueller's replacement, Trochowski's shot was saved by a diving Casillas and that was that.  Ozil, Mueller and company are young, its just not their time.  I predict a deep run from them again in 2014, not that Germany doesn't always have a deep run.

So basically, a first time European winner will be crowned outside of its home border and away from Europe on Sunday for the very first time.  (Brazil did do it in 1958 in Sweden.)

Netherlands and Spain both have a frustrating soccer history, though in different ways.  The Netherlands didn't enter 3 of the first 5 WCs and exited after the 1st round in the other two.  Next, they failed to qualify for the next 6 consecutive WCs from 1950-70, then managed to soar into the final game in both 1974 and 1978, only to lose both games to host countries, Argentina and W Germany.  They immediately failed to qualify for the next 2 WCs and since then finished in the Round of 16 twice, Quarterfinals once and would only once come close to glory with a semifinal finish in 1998, which was immediately followed by a failure to qualify for WC 2002.

Spain hasn't even been to the semifinal round before, disregarding their 4th place finish in 1950 since they finished last in the 2nd round group - there was no playoff.  From 1954-74, they failed to advance from the first round twice, which was better than the other 4 times they failured to even qualify at all.  Though they've qualified for every WC since 1978, they only managed these finishes: Round 1 exits twice, Round 2 exits 3 times and Quarterfinal appearances another 3 times.  That doesn't sound too bad.... if you're Mexico.  But for a soccer superpower, it is an enormous continual failure and a badge of national shame.

Though the Dutch have 2 Finals appearances and 1 semifinal match before this year under their belt, Spain can boast about their Euro 2008 championship - a victory which seemed to mark a titanic shift in the world football landscape.  While both countries have previously won Euro championships decades ago, Spain's current Euro title anoints them as the reigning world power (seeing as they knocked off WC 2006 winner Italy en route) and therefore the favorite coming into this Final.

Another reason Spain may be looked at as the favorite is the fact that their lineup consists of players mostly from the two La Liga world powers - Real Madrid and Barcelona.  Casillas, Ramos and Alonso represent Real while Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Pedro and now Villa ply their trade for Barcelona.  These were 10 of the 11 semifinal starters (the last was Villareal's Capdevilla at LB, you know, the one whom Jozy manhandled for the win in 2009 - I would start Real's Arbeloa instead, but whatever).  Other major contributors include Liverpool's Torres and Arsenal's Fabregas (who may also end up in Barcelona soon).

The Dutch can boast Van Persie (Arsenal), Robben (Bayern Munich), Sneijder (Inter Milan), Kuyt (Liverpool) and Van der Vaart (Real).  Others players for big clubs include Van Bommel (Bayern Munich), de Jong (Man City) and Huntelaar (AC Milan).  In many respects, this just seems like Sneijder's year, doesn't it?  He was a big reason Inter Milan won Italy's first ever treble and Inter's first Champions League in about 45 years.  Should he lead the Netherlands to the victory, he will be the world football player of the year for sure.  (I knew that Real shouldn't have sold him last summer.  I didn't realize that he might be all-world, but I knew he was a great player.)  Still, you'll notice that none listed for the Dutch are actually defenders, which is a scary proposition when faced with Spain's world class attacking prowess.

In particular, the familiarity in which Spain's Barcelona central midfield and CB contingent operate paramountly contributes to Spain's ability to carry out it's quick and plentiful passing style, especially through the center.

Anyway, with Brazil knocked out, this is the best possible matchup.  I initially had Spain and Brazil in the top tier with England, Argentina and the Netherlands in the 2nd.  (Germany I lumped with pretenders Italy and France.  That was dumb - I'll never doubt Deutschland again.  After the fact, I will now swap them out with England into the 2nd tier.)  I didn't really have a good reason why Netherlands shouldn't be included in the top tier, except for the fact that they hadn't really won anything.  Until now.  Maybe.

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