The 2010 World Cup came to an end this weekend, with Spain walking out as first time and deserving World Champions. But while history will only remember the winner, the final two matches provided a clinical reminder of what is wrong and what can be right with the game at the international level, a dialectic showcase of attacking football in one instance and football under attack in the other.
Third Place Match: Germany 3-2 Uruguay
My Prediction: Germany
First, let's talk about what went right; Germany and Uruguay played the third place match with an open, attacking flair that ended up being one of the best matches of the entire Tournament. It may be that, by reducing the stakes (because frankly, there is not much to play for), the Third Place match allows teams to open up and play bright, open football instead of bunkering in the hopes of avoiding a mistake. One of the great problems with perceptions about football can be directly attributed to the Hippocratic philosophy of most managers and players in big games; first, do no harm. When the high stakes are removed, for example on any given weekend in any domestic league match, players and teams feel free to impose their will on the game, to take chances and make higher risk plays that may lead to big plays and, hopefully, goals. Such was the case on Saturday, with Germany and Uruguay playing a fearless brand of football that allowed the best players on the pitch to entertain. It started with Golden Boot winner Thomas Müller's opener in the 19th minute; after Fernando Muslera's spilled a free kick from Bastian Schweinsteiger, the German striker sprinted into the area and banged in the rebound to put Germany up 1-0. Uruguay responded, scoring nine minutes later on a beautiful counterattack when Edinson Cavani slid the ball past a helpless Hans Joerg Butt. Doego Forlan, who won the Player of the Tournament, kept up his reputation for spectacular goals when he hit a wicked sidewinding shot into the ground in 51st minute, bouncing the ball into the net in one unstoppable motion, putting Urugay up 2-1. It was an amazing goal, a text book example of Forlan's incredible ability to score wonder goals as if they were simply par for the course.
From there, it was only natural that Germany would respond, and they did, when Marcel Jansen beat Muslera to the ball and headed in an easy goal in the 56th minute. At 2-2. both teams pressed for a winner, and it was Germany who finally got it in the 82nd minute, when Sami Khedira headed a perfectly placed cross into the top right corner, beating Muslera again and putting Germany in the lead for good. It came down to the final kick of the game when, in final seconds of extra time, Diego Forlan stepped up to a free kick just outside the area. Hoping to put the ball in on the final kick of the game and force extra time, Forlan hit another wonder strike...
...off of the crossbar. The whistle blew immediately and Germany walked out with the third place medals and a 3-2 win. Strange that the game would end on such a piece of brilliance, even stranger that the Golden Ball winner (Forlan) and The Golden Boot winner (Müller) were playing for third place. And yet, both awards were deserved, both players playing a huge role in their side's overall success in South Africa. This match was a testament to all that was great about the game and it was a fitting end for both teams, allowing them to showcase their special players and their entertaining brand of football.
Khedira Wins It (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
The Final: Spain 1-0 The Netherlands (aet)
My Prediction: Spain
If the Third Place match was an example of the beauty of football, The Final was a brutal example of the power of negative tactics to destroy the game. Let's get a recap out of the way, because the goals and chances are not really the story of this match; After both teams had breakaway chances denied by the excellent goalkeepers (Cesc Fabregas and Arjen Robben [twice] had clear chances denied after each broke in alone on goal, as did Sergio Ramos, who saw one open header saved and another put over the bar), the game went into extra time and in the 116th minute, Cesc Fabregas played in Andrés Iniesta, who took his time and slotted the ball past Marcus Steklenberg and into the far corner of the net to give Spain a 1-0 lead and ultimately, The World Cup.
Iniesta Wins The World Cup For Spain (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
But the story of the game has to be the brutal, physical play of the Dutch and the way in which the Spanish players used that style to their advantage by going to ground under the merest hint of a foul. Neither side covered themselves in glory and it was left to Howard Webb, put in a terrible position by both teams, to try and officiate the game. It kicked off in the early minute, when Robin Van Persie went in for a terrible tackles and only received a talking to, which seemed to have no effect as he made a few more bad tackles before being booked in the 15th minute. That set off a cavalcade of terrible challenges, forcing Webb to bring out the yellow card a total of 14 times and ultimately and finally forcing a red card on John Heitinga in the 109th minute after he had a second bookable offense for pulling back Iniesta on a breakaway. In between Van Persie's yellow and Heitinga's red, the Dutch played brutal, physical football that could have seen them reduced to nine men by halftime. Mark Van Bommel, well known as a dirty player, covered himself in infamy with a rash of horrible tackles, each one bookable and each one forcing Webb to think long and hard about sending the player off. And then there was Nigel De Jong, whose flying kick into the chest of an onrushing Xabi Alonso is a straight red card any day of the week.
I Mean, Really... (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Look, Howard Webb had a choice to make; he could do the right thing and send players off for atrocious tackling and reduce the Dutch to nine men in the first half, which would essentially ruin the biggest match of his and these player's lives by giving Spain a massive, unstoppable advantage or he could play it tight, keep handing out yellows and hope the players calm down and play fairly. There was no right answer, the Dutch kept fouling, the Spanish kept taking advantage of the fouls by sprinkling in generous helpings of simulation, and the game ended up being brutal to watch. A huge shame, but congratulations to Spain; the better team on the day clearly won. I feel for Webb as well, as he was put in a tough position by the players here. Both sides should have a long look in the mirror and FIFA needs to look at retroactive bans for violent conduct and for simulation; without the fear of being caught and punished after the match, players will continue their behavior in the hope that they can get away with it on the field. It, along with the lack of replay on crucial goal scoring opportunities (offside calls missed, balls over the line, etc) are really easy to solve and FIFA should be ashamed for not bringing the professional game into the 21st century. When the World Cup Final suffers, its time for a change.
Great Tournament and a deserving winner. Not much more to say except thank you to all of you for reading these posts; your attention has made this the biggest month in the history of this blog, pushing us over the 1,000,000 page views mark and generating daily traffic that averaged four times the usual numbers. I really appreciate your attention and hope you'll continue to visit in the coming months as the blog returns to covering film issues (with, I think, a generous portion of Liverpool FC coverage sprinkled in). Looking forward to a little vacation now... Thank you again and more very soon...