Fi­nal will match un­der­achiev­ers Spain, Nether­lands

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Jere Longman

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.

Con­tin­ued from C

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.”

Themba Hadebe As­so­Ci­AteD Press

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.

Ivan Sekretarev

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