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Espana Es Differente

Everything said and done around the World Cup in the last month has seemed right and wrong, spot on and deluded—and often simultaneously. First it was the “African Cup.” The dream was ephemeral, save perhaps for Ghana. Then there was talk about a “new Europe”: forget aging Italy, England, and France, here came the vibrant sons of a united Germany. (Though, it must be said, less and less of them are actually German). Almost as soon as it started, however, it became the “Latin American Cup.” European tactical conservatism seemed doomed against the Latin love for the game. Brazil did what was expected, Paraguay and Uruguay what no one expected, Chile enamored tactical fans, and Argentina reminded the world why football is the best sport on earth.

But German counter-attacks and the Dutch precision shattered those ideas, and the latter will face Spain for the glory later today. Yet it is the Spanish football proposition that, regardless the result later today, I think deserves most admiration.

Although they arrived as favorites, the Cup started for Vicente del Bosque and his Spanish squad with a hiccup. Switzerland beat them in a forgettable opening game; I can still recall the pleasure of English commentators, who seemed to think it cleared the way for Capello’s England. As if.

But Spain came back. Slowly but steadily, they have shown why they represent the best synthesis of European and Latin American football. They sometimes have the flair of Maradona’s men, yet they also have tactical order. Their football is beautiful and florid, yet it is also precise and organized. They have a defense to which even Villa contributes; they all run back and forth, even if it is often up to Xavi and Iniesta to create the magic. As shown by other squads, youth matters; but cohesion is imperative. Spain not only has individualities, but also a strong sense of comradeship.

As was the case during the Euro Cup they deservedly won two years ago, Del Bosque’s proposition remains necessary for football fans around the world: one does not need to sacrifice beauty for organization.

Unlike the rather boring tactical schemes of many of their European peers, Spain focuses on possession (very much exemplified by the tactical victory over Germany in the semi-finals). Having won many games by the minimal margin, one could argue they haven’t been supremely effective. Yet that would be misguided. Much like Bielsa’s Chile and unlike the traditional Italian catenaccio, they are never to be found holding back their opponents and hoping they will not score. Rather, Spain does not get tired of possessing the ball. They pass, they pass, they pass. And ultimately, that leads to attack. What better way to keep Casillas thinking more about his gorgeous but critical girlfriend than preventing a goal?

Without reading too much into it, it could be argued their football is like Spain itself—home to some of the best run multinationals in the world, including the banking behemoth Sandander and the telecom Telefónica, while maintaining an unabated love for bullfighting and anachronistic troubadours, not to mention a league that is the envy of even richer ones like England’s.

In the 1960s, a clever tourist minister came up with a slogan to advertise Spain as a great destination even though it remained an anachronistic totalitarian dictatorship: “España es diferente.” When it comes to football, it has a ring of prescience. Because they have found the perfect synthesis between the Old World tactic and New World beauty, let del Bosque’s insights stand as the main lesson from South Africa 2010. This should be the Spanish Cup.