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Spain's "Tiki-taka" style dominates

Two worlds collided almost as violently as Carles Puyol's head and the Jabulani. At least, that's what they claimed. Spain's two historic soccer identities -- poles apart -- had come together. On one English TV channel the commentator called it an "English goal" and if that was a bit desperate, you knew what he meant. Puyol had just risen above the German defense and smashed in a towering header from a corner. All over Spain, celebrations were sparked. It was a great goal, a proper header, powerful, almost brutal. It was also the significant goal in the country's soccer history, sending them into Sunday's World Cup final, but it wasn't very ... well, Spanish.

The cover of the sports daily AS the following morning announced: "Tiki-taka and a goal from the Furia Roja."

The Furia Roja, the Red Fury, is the nickname that was given to the Spanish national team by an Italian journalist after the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Spain had been powerful, aggressive, direct -- all physical prowess and intensity. Its style could be summed up in the phrase that José María Belauste is said to have shouted to a teammate: "Sabio, give me the ball! I'll steamroller them!" Tiki-taka, by contrast, is the nonsensical onomatopoeia that roughly means touchy-touch or tippy-tappy and describes the current Spain side's collective, short-passing, technical and supposedly super-creative game, one that hinges on possession.

They are two ends of the footballing scale and never the twain shall meet.

Except that they did against Germany. Except that, no matter what people say both in Spain and outside, they often do. Far more often than anyone seems prepared to admit.

There is certain puritanism about Spain's approach, a kind of "talibanismo de tiki-taka" -- as if scoring a goal from distance is a bit crass, as if bundling one in or scoring from a corner is rather grubby, as if hitting a team on the break or with a long ball is vulgar. As if a moment of individual brilliance, while a wonder to behold, is not quite right. Spain is supposed to work its way through teams together, with clever, intricate passing picking off an opponent's defensive armor piece by piece -- just as they had done against Poland before the tournament with a goal that was taken as the purest expression of "tiki-taka" there is.

This time, naturally, the Spaniards didn't mind. They were in the final. And if that made it seem like the critics had become what they most despised -- "resultadistas" -- it was understandable. Besides, Spain also believed that even if the goal had been brought to it courtesy of La Furia Roja, at least the game had been brought to it thanks to tiki-taka. And Spain was quite right, even if not only for the reasons it suggested. Meanwhile, Puyol's goal was not the only one to have arrived via a different, less tortuous route. Many of the goals have -- far more than many seem to want to admit.

The notion that the two styles are mutually exclusive simply isn't true. In fact, there seems to be a whole swirl of clichés and truisms that surround the Spanish national team that just do not stand up.

Watch Spain's goal against Paraguay again, the whole move, and it is a brilliant goal, all slick, one-touch passing, while the second against Honduras was also a neat move. But against Honduras, David Villa created a sensational goal out of nothing and on his own. Against Chile, the opener came from a long ball up the wing that FernandoTorres -- all pace, all power; one of the reasons why he does not always suit Spain's game -- chased and Villa took advantage of. Then there's Puyol's header against Germany. And against Switzerland, they didn't get any at all, of course.

Much the same is true of Euro 2008 -- mythologized and so often held up as the model to follow, a pure expression of tiki-taka. Wowed by Spain's wonderful display against Russia in the semifinal, many seem to have forgotten how its progress was secured. In its long-hoof-out-of-defense genesis, the first against Russia was reminiscent of Villa's first against Chile this time around. Against Sweden, there was one from a corner and the other via an aimless 92nd minute punt. Against Italy, it was penalties. And in the final, Torres reached a through ball first -- thanks to pace and power.

When it comes to attacking, tiki-taka has not always been quite the magic potion it is hailed to be, a guarantee of the spectacular and a guarantee of goals. At this World Cup, after all, Spain has won 1-0 three times in a row now. In total, it has scored only seven times in eight games. It hardly matters now because Spain is in the final, but for most of the tournament the Spanish have been conscious of that -- struck by a feeling that there's something not quite right. Meanwhile, in England some are even debating whether Spain are, actually, boring. The very suggestion would bring them out in a rage in Spain -- a Furia Roja, perhaps, against philistines who can't appreciate the art or the talent of this side.

That dichotomy says something about footballing cultures, the value placed on technique and endeavor, respectively. It also says something about Spain's excellence; it is invariably confronted by deeply defensive sides. And it says something about its control. If there has been little drama, little epic, about Spain's games, that is, at least in part, precisely because it has dominated matches, managed them. We cry out for the unexpected; football teams want to know what's coming. Few sides have ever achieved that quite as Spain is doing.

Maybe, like Pete Sampras or Roger Federer, it is the Spaniards' very brilliance that makes their games seem uneventful. People grew tired of the two tennis players because they seemed to be winning too easily. Their opponents simply can't touch them. Maybe they are simply forced back. Maybe the blame for the lack of classic, end-to-end contests involving Spain actually lies with opponents that simply can't match them.

But it's not that easy. Perhaps we are asking too much; certainly, we probably don't appreciate just how hard it is to open teams that, scared of Spain's talent, sit deep, close off space and give their opponents no time to breathe. Or maybe, knowing that they cannot attack Spain, opponents are forced into being defensive, aggressive. Play football and you'll lose against Spain; play at war and you might have a chance. As José Mourinho once put it: "If you have a Ferrari and I have a small car, the only way I can win is by putting sugar in your petrol tank."

That, certainly, is the opinion of Xavi (although, of course, he would say that). In a fascinating interview with El País, he insisted: "What did people think? That we were going to win every game 3-0? I can't believe what I am hearing sometimes. Do you not realize how hard it is? Teams aren't stupid; we're European champions. They all pressure us like wolves. There isn't a single meter, not a second on the pitch. We are passing faster and faster and faster. We're playing bloody brilliantly. Then there's the pitch and the ball -- I have spent the World Cup thinking, 'That's a good pass,' only to see the ball disappear off in a different direction."

It is something of an exaggeration. It is hard but he has mastered the surface and the ball better than anyone else. After all, Xavi has attempted and completed more passes than any other player, followed by his two midfield teammates -- 530 of 614, to Busquets's 421 of 446 and Alonso's 429 of 486.

It is true that Spain has not created as many chances as most would like, and it is also true that there have been one or two nervous moments, but largely they have not needed to create many more. And that is because of one of the other misconceptions: Tiki-taka is not an attacking style, or at least not only that; it can also be a defensive one. Just not "defensive" the way we know it. Not traditionally, at least.

Much has been said about the weakness of Spain's back four. It's not true. And it's not only not true because Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Puyol and Joan Capdevila are far better than they are given credit for, but also because they are so rarely exposed. The back four is not a back four but a back 11 -- just as it is a front 10 -- and because for Spain defending starts with the ball.

Put simply: If you don't have possession, you cannot attack Spain. If it controls the game, you cannot cause it problems. When you do get the ball back, there is an anxiety to do something with it immediately that it damages creativity. A tiredness too: "When we did eventually win the ball we were so exhausted from chasing it that we couldn't do anything with it," Miroslav Klose said. Spain had well over 50 percent of the possession against Germany and produced almost 160 more passes; Germany ran 1.2 more miles. No one at the World Cup has had more of the ball than Spain.

The cliché talks about efficiency as if it is a separate thing from aesthetics, and pragmatism as if it is sitting back and kicking the ball long. "Defensive master class" tends to be a tag hung on teams that park the bus. But is that really clever? Isn't Spain's defensive approach even more successful? The Spanish have, after all, conceded just two goals all tournament. Solidarity is seen as everyone fighting together "in the trenches." But what trenches? Spain's solidarity is always having players in the right position, always having options, not losing the ball. Safety first is seen as hoofing the ball miles away. But it is safer to keep hold of it.

The Spanish like to insist on the aesthetic, but it is effective too. And why shouldn't it be? And what of pragmatism? In Spain, they talk about it as if it is a dirty word; others sometimes talk about pragmatism as the ultimate goal, but one that is not compatible with a ball-playing style, rather a solid defense, organization. Pragmatism is taken to be tight, organized and athletic, not doing anything fancy, not taking any risks. But with the players Spain has, simply kicking the ball long is the riskiest thing on earth. For Spain, nothing could be more pragmatic than the way it plays -- with tiki-taka primarily, for that is what it does best, but also with competitiveness and pace and power. Spain is one of the few sides that defend and rest in possession of the ball.

The measure of pragmatism is success, the measure of effectiveness is results. Three years ago, Spain decided to keep the ball -- and the side still hasn't given it up. Spain is the European champion, and on Sunday it will play in its first World Cup final. You can't get much more pragmatic than that.

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