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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Impossible Germany, not-so-unlikely Spain

Posted by on Tue, Jul 6, 2010 at 9:51 PM

Spains players (from right, Alonso, Fabregas, Ramos, Villa) celebrate a quarterfinal victory over Paraguay
  • Laurence Griffiths
  • Spain's players (from right, Alonso, Fabregas, Ramos, Villa) celebrate a quarterfinal victory over Paraguay

RICHMOND, VA—Is it possible for a English-language sportwriter to write an article about the German national soccer team without any reference to World War I, World War II, any past national leaders, any references to "efficiency," or any references to the words "blitzkrieg" and "Aryan?"

I don't know, and it's obviously too late for this article to accomplish that feat. But let's pretend for a moment that the German national side that has now dismantled England and Argentina in four-star fashion were actually from California (where former legend Jurgen Klinsmann sometimes resides). What I'd say is they are like totally awesome, I am sooo in to the way they have been playing this World Cup.

As several members of the German contingent have pointed out, the Rhineland's run in this World Cup is a vindication for German football. Back in the day, even before valley girls came to national attention, there was "Football Made in Germany" on PBS. In the 1970s, heyday of both Bayern Munich and the German national team, the Germans were not only feared, they set the standard.

But while plutocrats (both faux and real) have gradually taken control of top clubs in England and Italy, and while the supporter-owned clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona have found creative ways to spend enormous sums of money on new players from time to time, German club football has lived within its means. Amazingly, this has not meant that Bayern Munich, the one club still considered a true European power, has turned the Bundesliga into a one-pony show.

On the contrary, the Bundesliga is probably the most unpredictable top league in Europe. While like many other American soccer fans I fell hard for the English Premiershp bug some time ago, and appreciate that the EPL is now ubiquitous on American televisions, both the standard of play and the overall entertainment value of the Bundesliga remain very, very high.

Almost the entire German World Cup squad plays in the Bundesliga—the one significant German playing abroad last season, Chelsea's Michael Ballack, is of course out injured. Defender Jerome Boateng has sealed a move to Manchester City for this upcoming season, and there may be bids for one or two others when the tournament is over.

Even so, it's fair to say that the German players are under-rated, largely because of the league they play in. To take a crude but telling barometer of pre-tournament popular assessment of German talent, the video game FIFA World Cup 2010 gives no German player other than Ballack a rating higher than 82, whereas France, Spain, Argentina and the like all have multiple players 85 and higher.

Can Bastian Schweinsteiger impose himself on the great Spanish midfield?
  • Joern Pollex
  • Can Bastian Schweinsteiger impose himself on the great Spanish midfield?
German players are probably under-rated as individuals, but it is their teamwork and cohesion that has made them greater than the sum of their parts in this tournament. That, and a tendency to get the first goal. Playing from ahead has allowed Germany to unleash their fast-paced counter-attacks to devastating effect. The one time in this tournament Germany fell behind, it was a different story—they ended up losing to Switzerland. Spain should be very mindful of this in tomorrow's semi-final.

Spain of course is one side that no one has under-estimated this tournament. They are the reigning European champions, they have the acknowledged best central midfield in the world, they have two of the best strikers around in Fernando Torres and David Villa, and one of the all-time greats in goal in Iker Casillas. Any side that brings in Cesc Fabregas off the bench is officially Ridiculously Talented.

If there is a weakness to Spain's game, it's widely thought to be in defense. But even this alleged weakness is probably over-stated—Carlos Puyol may look a step slow, but the brain and tenacity are still there. Nonetheless, it seems likely that Germany will try to play a quick passing, relatively direct game to try to catch the Spanish out at the back. They only need to succeed once to gain a decisive upper hand.

Like the Germans, almost all of the Spanish team currently play for Spanish clubs. Fabregas and Torres play in England, and reserve winger David Silva is also about to move to Manchester City, but all the other regulars play for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, or Villarreal. The battle of two national teams whose players mostly play in their home country's leagues, leagues which themselves are dominated by domestic players, is a bit of a throw-back in this era of soccer globalization. Recall, however, that the even more "bounded" Italians won the tournament in 2006. Perhaps it is no coincidence that national sides strongly rooted in their domestic leagues have done well—perhaps (in Germany's case) even punching a bit above their weight.

In any case, the winner of Wednesday's match gets a date with the Flying Creamsicles from Holland in the final. Football historians and Dutch fans will want a rematch of the 1974 Dutch-German final. But it's hard to bet against the Spanish side, especially when one realizes they haven't yet hit top gear: when and if Torres catches fire, the Spanish are capable of taking their game to yet another level beyond what we've seen so far.

It would be entertaining to see the Spanish find that top gear on Wednesday. But they better be sure to grab that first goal.

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