LIAM MACKEY: Football’s cream rises to the top

WELL it curdled and curdled but just when we thought the final of the 2010 World Cup would leave us with a sour taste in the mouth, the cream eventually, and mercifully, rose to the top.

And be in no doubt that Spain are the crème de la crème. In Johannesburg last night, they might have only fleetingly come close to touching the heights of which they are capable but their deserved victory over the Netherlands was reward not just for keeping their composure in the face of serious provocation but for retaining faith in the very idea of the passing game which made them European Champions two years ago.

As back to back champions, there can be no doubt that this Spanish team define the football age and, given the ugly alternative vision which the Dutch put before us, we should be grateful for that.

Otherwise, this was the end of a World Cup which, almost up until Andres Iniesta’s characteristic moment of class, felt more like the end of the world.

Depressing is about the best way to describe the Netherlands’ crude attempts to ruffle Spain’s feathers.

More Dutch monsters than Dutch masters, it was amazing that it took until extra time before they were finally reduced to 10 men, although I would have some sympathy for the much criticised Howard Webb in, earlier, erring on the side of keeping it 11 v 11 when so many referees are only too happy to disfigure a game for the flimsiest of reasons.

Anyway, the Dutch were doing all the disfiguring required. Agricultural would be the kindest way to describe their approach, albeit that their tractor had, in Arjen Robben, a Grand Prix driver in the cab.

And but for the brilliant Iker Casillas, Robben might have secured victory for the Orange, a measure of just how close to the wind the new world champions sailed at times.

That Spain came through in the end was the best thing that could be said about a final which fell disappointingly short of salvaging the whole competition. It was a tournament which began haltingly, the vagaries of the Jabulani ball coupled with the fear of losing making for a prolonged phoney war in which the main drama was off the pitch as big guns shot themselves in the foot, the French imploded and England and Italy began losing their way.

But once we reached the advanced knock-out stages things picked up considerably, though we continued to pine for a truly classic contest to rank with the best of all time.

England v Germany was a case in point. Probably the game of the tournament in terms of goals, drama and talking points, it wound up simply being too one-sided to be regarded as a genuine epic to rank up there with the great historic World Cup contests.

The Germans may take a different view, of course.

The tournament also suffered from the no-show by so many big marquee names, including Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka, Drogba and Torres.

We would make an honourable exception for Lionel Messi, who was consistently brilliant even though he didn’t have a goal to show for his efforts.

But, as Argentina crashed out, ultimately even the world’s greatest player fell short of billing, failing to imprint his name on the tournament as Maradona had done 24 years earlier.

More educational than entertaining, this was a World Cup which dished out a couple of harsh lessons, with Ghana the most undeserving victims as they were denied a semi-final place by Luis Suarez handball.

Here was a rare instance where a hard case would make good law but, with FIFA only grudgingly facing up to the urgent and incontrovertible need for video technology, I fear it will be whole lot longer before they see the wisdom of the ‘penalty goal’.

The overall verdict? To use a Dunphyism, it was a good World Cup, not a great one. On a scale of 10, with Mexico 1970 as the zenith and Italia 1990 as the nadir, South Africa was a six. And yes, I do rank Italia 90 at zero, even though, in our little neck of the woods, we recall it as nothing less than the Greatest Summer We’ve Ever Lived Through.

Which just goes to show that, like politics, all football is local. And, on that score, perhaps the real achievement of South Africa 2010 is that, as an apparently joyous event on the ground, it defied all the most pessimistic predictions of those who said it wouldn’t be done.

Africa’s first World Cup made history the moment it kicked off.

Appropriate then, that it climaxed with another historic first, as Spain finally gained admittance to football’s most elite club.


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