German fans will have to wait another four yearsImage: AP
July 8, 2010
A polished performance from Spain was too much for Germany, ending their dream of a fourth World Cup title. Now the Dutch and Spanish will play off to see who can bring their fans to the promised land for the first time.
Much as Germany had exceeded expectations in this tournament, thrilling their home fans and winning new ones around the world with its pretty, pacy play, after thirty minutes against Spain on Wednesday night, their exit seemed sealed - even just.
For as Germany had advanced through the knock-out round by out-classing and out-working their opponents Argentina and England, so were they themselves beaten by Spain.
Coach Joachim Loew's tactical philosophy had been built around exploiting mismatches. Defend deep, tackle ferociously, draw your opponent into committing too many men forward, hit them on the break. England's defense was too slow to cope. Argentina's were outnumbered - and sloppy to boot.
Spain were anything but. Germany were simply unready to cope with Spain's ability to pass precisely and take care of the ball. Because of their slick passing, time and again Spain were able to create chances - or at least pull Germany's defense out of shape - by committing no more than four men forward. And that meant that even when they turned the ball over, their other six players were prepared to get it back.
After defeating flawed sides in the last two rounds, Germany proved on Wednesday that it has its flaws too. A number of players, most notably Lukas Podolski, gave the ball away repeatedly when starved of space by the stern Spanish defense - nipping nascent counter-attacks in the bud.
Even when Germany realized it needed to keep more possession and began to come out of its defensive shell later in the first half, committing more men forward and giving their front men more passing options, they were unable to get through. Spain were just too disciplined in defense, and protected the ball too well.
Germany suffered in the absence of Bayern Munich's young striker Thomas Mueller. His energy, eye for goal, and care-free nature all could have been a positive influence on the team as it hit the skids for the first time since falling to Serbia. His understudy on the night, Piotr Trochowski, didn't have much influence on the game and was substituted just after the hour mark.
Spain's dominance of possession and greater ability to create chances, however, hadn't translated to goals by that time, and Trochowski's replacement Toni Kroos almost stole the lead for Germany. Within seven minutes, Kroos found himself wide open on the right side of the box, but shot straight at the Spanish keeper Iker Casillas.
It was ironic perhaps that Spain's reward for all their skill and tactical exertion was a simple, workmanlike goal. As Xavi prepared to take a corner in the 73rd minute, defender Carles Puyol stood way out at the edge of the area, got a good run-up (and a screen from Gerard Pique) and bashed the ball home with his head.
Despite keeping Spain at bay in open play, the Germany camp didn't have much quarrel with the result, or wonder what might have been had Kroos opened the scoring just three minutes prior.
"They had a lot of possession and we were made to run a lot," said Miroslav Klose. "Credit to Spain, who deserved to win.
"We couldn't play our game," he added, saying "We tried to get into tackles quickly, but by the time we got there the ball was already gone."
Loew, who has seen his team execute his game plans masterfully in recent weeks, wasn't afraid to admit his team had been outplayed by a better unit.
"This is a well-oiled team that has been playing together for two or three years with almost the exact same players. They played well. They pushed us to our limits."
It's now the second loss to this experienced Spain side for Loew's Germany - they fell to the Spanish in the final of Euro 2008 in Vienna. No word yet whether Loew will have another chance to strike back in future tournaments - he evaded questions about his future with the team after the match.
What is clear with the result is that the World Cup - previously in the hands of just seven nations through its history - is about to get a new winner.
Spain has never been to a World Cup final before, and had only made it to a single semi-final (60 years ago) before facing Germany on Wednesday. As such, the nation is probably world football's biggest underachiever. But the current squad, most of whom won the European championship two years ago, will come into the match knowing how to pull themselves together, hold their nerve and win.
The Netherlands, quite differently, has punched above its weight as a nation over the years. The small nation's super-teams of the 1970s made it to two consecutive World Cup finals and a European Championship, conquered Europe in 1988, and have been a frequent semifinalist at both tournaments over the last twelve years. Still, the Dutch have never won a World Cup - and this group of players has yet to win a trophy in Orange.
Speaking in their favor is all the winning its two key men did with their club sides this year. Arjen Robben fired Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title and the German Cup this year, and might have added a Champions League trophy to that haul…had he not run into Wesley Sneijder's Inter Milan - who won a domestic league and cup double of their own.
Should Sneijder - joint top scorer in the current competition, it stands to mention - add a World Cup in orange to the three titles he already won in black-and-blue this year, he will write his name into soccer's history books.