Monday, June 29, 2009

a few thoughts on the confederations cup, part two: Spain, South Africa

Spain. Spain started out cool, calm, and collected, tiki-taka-ing right on over poor New Zealand with a 5-0 blowout. Here I confess that it really never occurred to me that they wouldn't be in the final. They entered the tournament with a winning streak of more than 30 games; who was going to defeat them en route? Certainly not the US! Mea culpa. In retrospect, it's quite clear to me I was guilty of that very arrogance I despise in other fans and players: the assumption that my team possessed some sort of entitlement to victory. That'll teach me.

You might say that the Spain we saw in South Africa this month was the Spain we're more accustomed to seeing on the world stage, the Spain everyone predicted in Euro 2008: starting out strong and gorgeous, hardly seeming to break a sweat, followed by utter disintegration. Some pundits have said in the past that Spain can't win because the Spanish team, like Spain itself, is hopelessly divided by regionalisms: they are Basques, perhaps, or Catalans, before they are Spaniards. I don't know if that's true, or ever has been, but I don't think it was the case in South Africa on June 24.

I've been puzzling over what went wrong there. The short version is that the US defeated Spain because the US played superior football that day, and it's true--Xavi was slightly off throughout the game; David Villa and Fernando Torres were terrible, incapable of finishing (and the pressure Torres was placing upon himself in the third-place match as a result was unmistakeable). But beyond that--and here I'm looking for reasons, not making excuses--Iniesta, who plays so well with Xavi, was missing, still recovering from late-season injuries. And a number of the key players were Barca boys--and thus at the end of an exhausting season in which they claimed the triple.

At any rate, the pressure's off Spain now to maintain that winning streak. Here's hoping they've been reminded of their vulnerability and they'll learn from their mistakes in time to claim their first-ever World Cup victory in 2010.

South Africa. These guys were probably my happiest surprise of the tournament. Well, okay, besides the US's excellent run into the finals. I don't get to see African teams play nearly as much as I'd like, and I enjoyed watching Egypt play a lot, but I knew they were good: South Africa was spirited and much better than I expected, and along with Spain certainly provided the most thrilling five minutes of the entire tournament in the third-place playoff on Sunday. It was looking like a sure 1-0 defeat for Spain right up to the 88th minute when Daniel Guiza sank the ball home to ensure overtime. But wait! One absurd minute later, Guiza did it again! Oh, the stricken faces of the South Africa fans! Shock, despair, tears, departures in the stands. But wait--here's stoppage time and in the 93rd minute Katlego Mphela (who'd also scored the previous goal) leveled the scoreline again. I was rooting for Spain but I screamed "Oh yeah!" Apparently as the roar went up within the stadium, the fair-weather fans who were on their way out went running back in. South Africa fell anyway in the end, to Xabi Alonso's overtime goal, but this time you felt they'd had a decent chance versus the cruelty of those last-minute shockers, and while the fans looked sad again, there was less of the punched-in-the-gut air about them. I loved this team and I can't wait to watch them again next year, and I like their capable coach Joel Santana, a Brazilian ex-defender with a history of saving clubs from relegation in Brasileirão, Brazil's top league.

to be continued...

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