Football commentators are obsessed with teams trying to score ‘the perfect goal.’ Arsenal are frequently accused of doing it, Barcelona are often tarred with the same brush (except they usually succeed) and, as
Too many passes, not enough penetration or end product, this great chance that Spain had to reach the World Cup final was passing them by, and yet they continued the search for this mythical, magical goal. Surely, though, the ‘perfect goal’ is the winning goal, however it comes, and you can bet your life that Carles Puyol’s thumping header from Xavi Hernandez’s 73rd-minute corner kick will be remembered far more fondly by Spanish fans than any of the free-flowing, stunning goals that their country have scored over the past few years, or forever in fact. This one meant a whole lot more, it has pushed this generation of Spanish players ever closer to joining footballing royalty, closer to putting the names of Puyol, Xavi and their team-mates up on a pedestal with the legends of the game, closer to making them immortal. It has put Spain in a World Cup final for the first time in their history, and how they deserve to be there.
This was easily Spain’s best performance of the finals. They took on a German team who had blown away both England and Argentina at their own game, keeping the ball at will and restricting the German midfield – which has been so impressive throughout the tournament – to just chasing the shadows of their competitors in red. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso saw more of the ball than anyone, with the latter able to fire off some of his trademark long range efforts and the Barcelona pair dictating play in the manner that seems second nature to them. Their club mate Pedro was included from the start too, and while there was often a disappointing lack of end product from the winger, he did at least offer an alternative to the struggling Fernando Torres upfront, always wanting the ball and always willing to run at the German defence. The omission of Torres was not exactly a surprising one, even if it would have been considered madness ahead of the tournament. Pedro was thoroughly deserving of his place in the side based on last season’s form alone, when the Tenerife-born winger scored 23 goals for Barca. Germany have been excellent down both wings throughout the tournament, but the presence of Pedro seemed to make Joachim Low’s side think more about their defensive duties down the flanks than their attacking ones, with Lukas Podolski in particular pinned back in his own half for the majority of the contest.
Torres did eventually climb off the bench, and could have repeated his goal against the Germans in the 2008 European Championship final had Pedro chosen to pass late on, but it was not to matter. “Our players from defence to attack were extraordinary and we played a great game,” cheered jubilant coach Vicente del Bosque. “We have another game to play, let’s see if we are capable of being comfortable on the ball, in good physical shape and see if we can win. The Netherlands represent the values of Dutch football very well and they’ll be very tough rivals.” They certainly will, but as the Dutch represent the final hurdle between this Spanish team and their place in the history books, confidence is high.
Sure, Spain were the pre-tournament favourites, but there was always a worry about over-confidence in the camp, about a possible vanity and cockiness ahead of a World Cup that they were widely expected to win. They will be expected to win the final now as well of course, but that defeat that the Spanish suffered to Switzerland in their opening match – ironically in Durban, where last night’s qualification for the final was achieved – has created a new determination and steeliness about the squad. They have won the next five matches whilst only conceding one goal, and while their defensive qualities are not what people would have been expecting to talk about ahead of an appearance in the final, they are qualities that are crucial for any World Cup winning side and that, regardless of how their goals are coming these days, is what Spain are aspiring to be on Sunday night. Think how perfect a World Cup winning goal would be, however it goes in.