BOSTON — We should be grateful that South Africa 2010 turned out to be an alluring celebration of game and country.
Hell, by Sunday the vuvuzelas had begun to sound like late Miles Davis.
The worst fears-of security lapses,of crime waves, of infrastructure woes-never materialized and soccer proved to be the headline drama. There was plenty of drama too and the games — despite the vagaries of a too-bouncy ball and some officiating gaffes — managed not only to kick up the two best teams into the final, but to pit the two best soccer nations never to have won the coveted trophy.
And then, regrettably, the final proved to be something of a clunker, the type of long scoreless grind that American naysayers cite whenever they want to debunk the sport.
That kind of disappointment is hardly uncommon in the biggest sporting contests. The NCAA basketball final is usually scrappy and low scoring and seldom as entertaining as the best early-round games. And just like in boxing, where it is often remarked that styles make fights, styles can dictate soccer games too.
In this case the contrasting styles of the Spanish and Dutch teams yielded a choppy, chippy, rather ugly affair that produced far more colored cards — a Cup final record of 13 yellows (one of which turned red and reduced the Netherlands to 10 men) — than shots on goal.
Which shouldn't be confused with lack of drama. The stakes of the game, the thwarted soccer histories of both nations, assured a high degree of tension as long as the game remained close. So it was plenty tense when the game appeared headed — for the third time in the last five World Cups — to a penalty-kick shootout, an unfortunate climax since it tends to yield goats more often than heroes.
But in the waning minutes of overtime, Andres Iniesta, who had been menacing the Dutch goal for most of the second half, took a pass in the penalty area and fired the ball off the outstretched fingertips of the Dutch goalkeeper into the net and the history books.
Spain has been billed as the heir to Brazil's beautiful game, a graceful approach that attacks with short passing combinations and dazzling individual ball skills. But sometimes Spain, for all that dazzle and domination of the ball, seemed heirs to basketball's defunct four-corner
offense. While they passed it neatly around the perimeter, seldom did all that nifty work and possession result in an easy path to a score.
As a result Spain won this World Cup with virtually no margin for error. It became the first team ever to win the crown after losing its first game. And despite its stranglehold on the ball — 63-37 was the ball-control divide with the Dutch — the team scored just eight goals in
The final was Spain's fourth successive 1-0 victory (Portugal, Paraguay and Germany were the three previous victims), with all four games scoreless at halftime.
Before the final, the Dutch coach and players had insisted they would brave the Spanish wave and still remain attack-minded. But that didn't exactly prove to be true. Having seen what happened to Germany when it didn't challenge the Spanish midfielders for possession, the Dutch
instead mimicked Paraguay's approach, chasing and pestering them all over the field.
The added wrinkle was that the Dutch went thuggish, chopping down the smaller Spanish players at the point of attack — and counting on the reluctance of the referee to boot anyone from what was ballyhooed as a classic showcase.
The plan almost worked. Though the English ref called 28 fouls on the Netherlands and handed out yellow cards liberally, he spared a Dutch midfielder what appeared an obvious red card — cleats to the chest — early in the game. So the Dutch continued to kick and cleat — and whined when the calls went against them.
Though they didn't muster much of a counterattack, they did spring speedy winger Arjen Robben on a pair of breakaways up the Spanish gut. On the first, Spain keeper and captain Iker Casillas dove the wrong way, but managed to deflect the shot with his trailing foot; on the second, he raced out quickly and smothered the ball at Robben's feet.
But the Dutch strategy became harder and harder to effect as the game went long, the legs got rubbery, the yellow cards piled up and Spain pressed its attack. It seemed inevitable that one of the Dutch players would pick up a second yellow card and force the team to play a man down. The unlucky Dutchman was the stalwart central defender John Heitinga and Iniesta would score from the very territory he vacated.
World Cup 2010 was certainly a big win for South Africa as well, putting a joyous face on a country that is most often portrayed as a troubled nation plagued by crime, corruption and disease.
But it is the nature of sports that even a historic triumph on and off the field quickly becomes yesterday's news. So those fans not partying the night away in celebration are already asking what's next: for the World Cup; for the game; and — here in the United States — for soccer's future in America.
About the only certainty is that the World Cup will next be competed in four years and in Brazil. Brazil, as host nation, is also the only country guaranteed to play there. It is certainly reasonable to assume that there will be enormous pressure on Brazil's next coach to resurrect the style that proved so successful for Spain and that, before it was abandoned for a tougher, more physical approach, kept Brazil on the game's loftiest pedestal.
The United States is a contender to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, both of which will be awarded in December. The 2018 competition seems destined for Europe — possibly England, Spain or Russia — since the soccer establishment will not tolerate three straight World Cups off the continent.
The U.S. would seem to have an excellent chance to land 2022. The country has the infrastructure in place and FIFA will certainly have taken note that Americans both attended games in South Africa and watched from home in record numbers.
The sport itself is unlikely to change much before the next Cup. Soccer is bolstered by its traditions, but dogged by them too. And despite pledges to examine such controversial matters as officiating, FIFA is reluctant to embrace almost new concepts. In truth, it tends to revel in
controversy, at least behind close doors, and believes it stokes the passion of the fans. So while Brazil 2014 might find extra officials positioned near the goal, don't hold your breath for technological innovations like video replay.
Few organizations can top FIFA for sanctimony and, even before Sunday's final, it had dubbed the officiating in South Africa "a big success." Its head of refereeing announced that 96 percent of the calls on the field had been correct. Even granting that as an enviable percentage, it
ignores the fact that soccer, because of the low scoring, is a sport where errors can have the greatest consequences. And those few wrong calls that FIFA did acknowledge included mistakes that helped send teams like England and Mexico home.
The American team certainly inspired some excitement. The team is often credited with high energy, excellent fitness and fine goalkeepers (because that's a hands-on position), but this time around the Yanks flashed some genuine skill and produced some highlight-reel goals. The team was also more consistent game to game, though it was remarkably inconsistent within each contest. There is absolutely no future in being a comeback team in the sport of soccer.
Still, the U.S. team should be bolstered by soccer's higher profile here, as it continues the steady transformation from regional power to international player. It obviously needs to do a better of job of tapping the reservoirs of talent in this country, not just immigrant communities but inner-city youth. There is a plethora of talented and stylish point guards who, by dint of size, aren't destined to play big-time basketball, but are a perfect fit for the soccer field.
At the very least, the U.S. team should continue to dominate what is a relatively weak soccer region. Which means that Americans, unlike most nationalities around the world, can pretty much count on their team playing in Brazil in 2014.
While the average American sports fan may not pay much more attention to soccer until then, it is clear that we have finally turned on to the World Cup.
And there is something comforting in the notion that when it's said the whole world is watching, that world now includes us.