If, by some quirk of fate you’d managed to miss the World Cup in its entirety, only tuning in for the post-match punditry after the end of the final, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest collection of players on God’s green Earth had just played the most beautiful football ever witnessed by humankind against a pack of aggressive Neanderthal thugs who fully deserved to lose the game in utter disgrace, preferably with fewer players on the pitch they actually finished with, and by a heavier margin. You’d believe that the scorer of Spain’s late winner, Andrés Iniesta, was the player of the tournament by a significant margin.
You’d believe all those things because modern TV punditry seems to increasingly see things in black and white. There can be little doubt that Spain are worthy winners of the World Cup – they’ve been the best team, and they thoroughly deserved to win a final admittedly littered with bad challenges. But during the tournament did they really play the graceful, beautiful football we know they can play? Not really. There was certainly plenty of tiki-taka but in truth, we saw precious little penetration; artistry without the end product. Fernando Torres laboured up front, and while David Villa was more clinical, the general sensation after watching Spain’s games was that they’d worn their opponents down more through sheer, dogged persistence: keeping the ball for ages, passing and passing and passing until eventually the other team would make a mistake which would invariably be punished.
I can’t remember watching a single one of Spain’s games thinking they were playing the best football of the tournament. In the group stages, Argentina produced sustained periods of glorious attacking play. Chile were tenacious, aggressive and forward-thinking (if profligate). Japan’s 3-1 victory over Denmark was a delight to behold. Germany played some thrilling, incisive counter-attacking football. Heck, their third-place play-off with Uruguay was one of the games of the tournament; a real ding-dong battle with bags of chances and excitement, two teams going for broke with nothing to lose.
And as big a fan of Iniesta as I am, I’d be hard pushed to argue that he’s been comfortably the player of the World Cup, as Messrs. Hansen, Shearer and Dixon were all too ready to claim. Sure, the truth that Iniesta has played well but that others have outshone him doesn’t necessarily fit with the planned narrative, but while it was nice to see him slot away the winning goal, it’s no surprise to me that Diego Forlán is picking up the Golden Ball for player of the tournament. It’s not really been a World Cup for established stars, and it’s a clutch of lesser-known players – Honda, Gyan, Mueller, Oezil, Forlán (more of a known quantity perhaps, but still performed above expectations on the biggest of stages) – who have emerged with reputations significantly enhanced. These are the players the Beeb’s pundits should be talking about, not simply focusing on the eventual winners, which feels like such a cheap cop-out, as does the suggestion that their football has lit up an otherwise disappointing World Cup.
As for the Dutch, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d committed some kind of war crime, such was the vitriol afforded their admittedly stifling play. Sure, they were perhaps lucky to finish the game just one man down, but the thuggish van Bommel aside, there was no real malicious intent to their fouling – Spain were simply too good for them on the day, and the less technically-accomplished team were often forced into ill-timed challenges. The panel were all too willing to forget the admirable piece of sportsmanship shown by Robin van Persie earlier in the game, the fact that Arjen Robben opted to stay on his feet when under challenge from Carles Puyol, or that the team formed a guard of honour for the winners as they trotted back out onto the pitch.
Spain were not without their faults: plenty of card-waving gestures whenever a player of theirs hit the deck, while the match-winner barely needed any encouragement to take a tumble in the incident which led to Johnny Heitinga getting his marching orders. But Spain were cast as the good guys and Holland the bad, and the script wasn’t about to get any last-minute tinkering, especially once Iniesta rifled home.
The Beeb arguably missed a Martin O’Neill this year – someone to offer a different perspective, a counterpoint to the lazy parroting of conventional “wisdom” that Hansen and Shearer in particular seem to increasingly rely on. It almost made me wish I’d tuned into ITV. Almost.