SPAIN TO MEET DUTCH IN CUP FINAL
Final will match underachievers Spain, Netherlands
DURBAN, South Africa — While it is the world’s most popular sporting event, the World Cup has always been as exclusionary as it has been exclusive, essentially a public event held at a private club.
Only seven teams have won the title in 80 years of competition. But an eighth champion will be crowned Sunday when either Spain or the Netherlands will finally be admitted beyond the velvet rope.
In beating Germany 1-0 in Wednesday’s semifinal, Spain finally unyoked itself from the bur- den of being considered soccer’s chief underperformer — a team that possessed beauty but not sufficient toughness — in reaching the final for the first time. And if the Spanish didn’t own that dubious distinction, then the Dutch did.
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No one can question Spain’s sturdiness and poise now, not after it won the 2008 European championship and kept its nerve in this tournament while winning three consecutive games by 1-0 in the knockout round. La Furia Roja is now at its hardiest, not most vulnerable, in the taut moments, having built a stunning record of 48-2-3 since 2007.
Wednesday’s victory came on a headed corner kick in the 73rd minute by center back Carles Puyol, a man whose ringlet curls belong on a 1970s Farrah Fawcett poster. If his tresses are outdated, though, his instinct and timing are exquisite. On the corner kick by Xavi, Puyol, a defender, rushed forward from the top of the penalty area and his head struck the ball like a fist from 10 yards.
“We’ve shown that in the big moments we can grow even more,” star striker David Villa said. “We should have scored more goals, but one from Puyol Carles Puyol, right, celebrates with teammates Gerard Piqué, top, and Joan Capdevila after Puyol’s goal gave Spain a -0 victory. was enough.”
Much of the beauty of the semifinal was in its struggle. Eventually, Spain prevailed with a gorgeous selfishness. It took the ball and refused to give it back. Without possession, Germany could not unfurl its counterattack. Even when it won the ball, it lost it again quickly in a thicket of legs in midfield. Xabi Alonso was an able obstructionist. And Xavi was magnificent in circulating the ball like a viral e-mail. Unable to score quickly as it had in smothering England and Argentina, Germany lost its daring and bravado.
“There wasn’t the courage, the 100 percent confidence, to complete a run,” said Joachim Loew, the German coach. “It is extremely difficult to win the ball back from them.”
Spain has been the best team in Europe — all the world, really — for much of the last four years. With all but two members of the starting lineup playing for either Barcelona or Real Madrid, the Spanish play with a seamlessness and fluidity that’s almost intuitive.
“They have been playing together for several years, they are very cohesive, their moves come automatically,” German striker Miroslav Klose said. “They made us look passive.”
Spain outshot Germany 13-5 and created many more dangerous chances.
“They play in a fairly automatic way,’’ Loew said. “I’m pretty confident Spain will win the title. When they want, they can be very dominant. They are the masters of the game. You can see it in every pass. Take how Barcelona plays. They can hardly be beaten. They are extremely confident and very calm in the way they circulate the ball.”
Spain’s Carles Puyol, left, and Miroslav Klose rise for a ball during their semifinal match. Puyol headed in the winning goal in the 73rd minute to send his nation to its first berth in the World Cup final.