ROLL UP! Roll up!
Time to play the greatest game in the world – word association football.
You know the drill.
I say the country and you say the first word that pops into your head.
Ready? Here goes… Brazil? Samba! Spain? Sleek! Uruguay?
Stealthy! Ireland? Competitive! England? Out! Faroe Islands?
Proud! Any side from Eastern Europe?
Crack! Any side from sub-Saharan Africa? Naïve!
Well, if this World Cup has taught us anything, it’s that the bell has tolled for a host cliches and stereotypes. It wasn’t naivety which did for Ghana, for example, but the polar opposite demonstrated by Luis Suarez. On the other hand, it was, remarkably, a kind of naivety which saw Brazil gift Holland an equaliser before rank stupidity took over and sealed their fate.
But, beyond doubt, the most durable footballing stereotype to take a tumble in South Africa is the one which has always umbilically linked the words “Germany” and “efficient”. Once we couldn’t write them off, now we can’t write them up enough.
The only pity about tomorrow’s mouth-watering semi-final between Spain and Germany is that it isn’t the final itself, as it was two years ago at the European Championship decider in Vienna when the Spanish deservedly prevailed. Otherwise, the penultimate game of South Africa 2010 – and, yes, I am forgetting the third-place play-off – appears to have all the ingredients required for a classic.
Of course, I say this fully aware that I, and many others, made similarly excitable predictions ahead of the Germany-Argentina quarter-final. Instead of a battle that went ding-dong, we got something that went ding-ding – the sound of the goal register merrily chiming as, for the third time in these finals, Joachim Löw’s side banged in four.
And so it was indeed a World Cup game which will live long in the memory, just not for the reasons we had all imagined. I have to say that, once I got over the disappointment of Argentina’s failure to make a proper contest of it, I simply luxuriated in the freewheeling style with which Germany put them to the sword.
It used to be that German teams were easier to admire than to love. The big difference with the current team is that they inspire nothing less than awed affection for the manner in which they go about winning games.
SOME PEOPLE sound a bit sniffy when they call Germany’s approach a “counter-attacking” style, as though the counter part somehow detracts from the attacking element. Me, I see it as a stunning example of attack as the best means of defence, a strategy which plugs gaps as required and bores holes in the opposition whenever opportunity knocks.
Before this World Cup, I would have yielded to no-one in my admiration for Spain’s so-called ‘tikka takka’ football, that patient, probing, pass and move approach which gradually pulls the opposition out of shape until, with a sudden acceleration of energy and intent, a gap is opened and exploited to lethal effect. And, perhaps worryingly for Germany, Spain have promised more than they have delivered at the tournament so far, David Villa’s wonderful eye for goal making the most of the disappointingly limited number of chances his side have created.
Germany, on the other hand, have taken to battering opponents into submission with a winning mixture of athleticism and artistry, underpinned in all areas of the pitch by a hard-working and selfless team ethic. But perhaps the team’s defining characteristic is fearlessness. Looking at the boyish faces of Ozil and Muller, you would be tempted to attribute it to the fearlessness of youth but, if so, it has also had the effect of rejuvenating veterans like Klose and Schweinsteiger. And such has been the stunning success of this blend that Thomas Mueller’s absence tomorrow now seems an altogether bigger deal than was Michael Ballack’s before the tournament kicked off.
None of which means, of course, that Germany will reign supreme either tomorrow or next Sunday in Johannesburg. The other big lesson which this World Cup has taught us is that, basically, everything we know is wrong. Not that I take a whole lot of pleasure in either Uruguay or Holland being two steps from football’s ultimate prize. Perhaps they will both redeem themselves in Cape Town tonight but the horrible manner in which Ghana were denied their rightful semi-final place, coupled with the functional football so far favoured by the Dutch, leaves me hoping that the new world champions will emerge from tomorrow’s duel.
And, right now, I’d be more than happy to join in the celebrations if the ultimate triumph turns out to be made in Berlin.
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