DURBAN, South Africa – And the underachievers did it.
Spain, a country that has long regaled the world with beautiful football, has finally reached a World Cup final after defeating 1-0 a German scoring machine that ran out of ammunition.
Spain’s victory, combined with that of the Netherlands over Uruguay Tuesday, ensures that South Africa will crown a brand-new world champion Sunday when these two teams face off in the tournament’s last encounter.
The all European final also means that for the first time in World Cup history a European side will triumph outside of Europe. Until this year, only South American teams had been able to win the Cup outside of their continent.
Spain controlled much of the game Wednesday, but as has often been the case during this tournament it struggled to translate its domination into advantage on the scoreboard and again advanced on the smallest of margins. Only late in the match did the Spaniards surge ahead on a powerful header from defender Carles Puyol.
For Spain, Wednesday’s victory is another decisive step in the team’s transformation from being one of soccer’s worst chokers to what is now close to an Invincible Armada. The last time Spain had made it to the last four in the World Cup before this year was 1950, but after becoming European champions two years ago, the Spaniards now have the opportunity to clinch their first World Cup.
“These past two or three years, they’ve been consistently good,” said German coach Joachim Löw after the game. “And all these recent matches have demonstrated that they are very hard to beat.”
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This World Cup had first been deemed an African one by virtue of hosts South Africa and a record five other African teams expected to do well on home soil.
But then it seemed South America had a stranglehold on this Cup tournament when all five of its teams qualified for the second round. Now with three out of four semifinalists and the two finalists, Europe is the big winner of this first World Cup in Africa.
Why that is the case is a matter of debate, but Japanese coach Takeshi Okada gave a hint when he said part of his team’s success — Japan’s second-round appearance is its best showing in a World Cup outside of Japan — was due to South Africa’s frigid temperatures.
"We fully recognized that the FIFA World Cup in South Africa was in the wintertime so we could keep running," Okada said. "The cool weather has been a good environment for us."
This World Cup is the first one to be held in winter temperatures since 1978 when it took place in Argentina. Like Japan, teams such as Germany and the Netherlands base much of their game on physical running and thrive in colder temperatures.
Except for a surprise defeat to Serbia in the group stage, Germany had been firing on all cylinders and hammered both England and Argentina, the magnitude of which hadn’t been seen in decades.
The team's hopes seemed to have taken a fatal blow just before the start of the tournament when emblematic captain Michael Ballack was ruled out because of an ankle injury, but his absence proved a blessing in disguise for the Germans. Young players that might have suffered from Ballack’s overpowering presence stepped up to the fore with spectacular results, prompting former German player Bernd Schuster to call Ballack’s accident a “stroke of good luck” for the German team.
Spain, on the other hand, had carried superstar Fernando Torres as a burden throughout the tournament. The Liverpool striker, who buried Germany’s hopes with his lone goal in the final of the Euro 2008, has yet to score in this World Cup, and Spain has seemed to play a lot better every time he was substituted. Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque finally came to this realization ahead of Wednesday’s clash, and Torres started the semifinal on the bench for the first time in the tournament, replaced by Barcelona’s Pedro.
The first half saw Spain do what Spain does best: retain possession of the ball and move it across the field through accurate, short, passes. Germany also stuck to the swift counterattacking moves that had served it well, but it failed to repeat the early scores of previous games.
One of the most entertaining moves of the first 45 minutes remained the chase two security guards gave to an intruding spectator and his red vuvuzela.
The second half proposed more of the same, but with more urgency. Both teams created several clear scoring chances, which didn’t become goals only because of the strikers’ inaccuracy or the goalkeepers’ reflexes. And since strikers couldn’t find the target, a central defender decided to go for it.
Off a corner kick from Xavi at the 73rd minute, Puyol leaped high above the German defense, his mane of brown locks flew haphazardly, but he headed the ball decisively beyond German keeper Manuel Neuer’s left.
Germany’s playmaker, Bastian Schweinsteiger, cursed, and the Germans could offer little else in response over the last 20 minutes of the game.
Once the whistle was blown, the Spaniards ran toward their bench in celebration, but after a few minutes all had disappeared in the dressing room, preparing for the task ahead.
The Germans lingered on the field, wondering how a team that had scored a combined eight times against England and Argentina had not managed a single goal against their last opponent.