Two worlds collided almost as violently as
The cover of the sports daily
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
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
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,
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.
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
That, certainly, is the opinion of
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
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,"
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.