Spain's final test was to endure the brute force of Holland. As a last trial of their claim to greatness it was wrong for a World Cup climax but right for the killing off of any last doubts about their pedigree.
As Mark van Bommel's special Fifa licence to foul was renewed for the last of the 64 games and other Dutchmen joined him in the clogging squad the beauty of Spain's kaleidoscopic passing game earned them high ranking on the list of the best World Cup winners since Brazil in 1970. No champions since the Pelé generation have articulated so clearly an ideal, an ethic, a scheme for how the world's favourite game should be played.
This is the Barcelona scheme, of course, so Sunday night's result could have been sent round the globe as Crazy Gang 0, Barça 1. Seven of the 11 Spanish starters call the Camp Nou home and six came through the academy that enlisted Lionel Messi from Argentina as a 14-year-old. Cesc Fábregas, who came off the bench, is another graduate of the Catalan finishing school. But it would be unjust to understate Vicente del Bosque's role in achieving a consensus between the Barça contingent and the rest. As the world and European champions arrived home, El País said Spain “gave an injection of universality, showed its style of football despite those who sneer at it, after an emotional, uncomfortable game against a coarse Netherlands”.
Amid this utopian rhetoric we turn back to the France team of 1998-2000, who achieved the same world and continental double. Then the French were held up as a model of ethnic integration: a riposte to xenophobia. That was aiming a bit too high because French society was not miraculously altered. Spain, though, can claim to have shown the world game that encouraging artistry is the best — the only — true raison d'être.
Creativity, in this context, does not mean trickery, though there is some of that. It means orchestral passing. Spain exclude the opposition from the game. They have mastered the art of circulation and space manipulation. At Barcelona's urging the nation's team turned their backs on power and automation in favour of agility and self-expression.
Sir Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's director of football, who advises us to watch out for Gerard, Barça's next young star, says: “Spain have shown that size isn't everything. When I came into the job six years ago a lot of clubs were saying, 'If you are not six foot plus, unlucky', and we were getting rid of really talented youngsters because they were too small Then Spain had a midfield of Xavi, [Andrés] Iniesta, [David] Silva and Fábregas, with Villa up front. Suddenly everyone thought if you keep the ball it's good. People started looking for the more technical players.”
Spain have won 51 of their past 55 matches and have made more successful passes in a World Cup than any team since records were first kept in 1966, surpassing the previous best of the 1994 Brazil side. Xavi made more passes in this World Cup than any player in history. He and Iniesta are the wonder boys of this side. Iniesta and Xavi have won the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey, as well as prizes with Spain at three youth levels.
Yet this world crown was seized with less of the authority Spain displayed in Austria and Switzerland two years ago. Eight goals in seven World Cup outings was the all-time lowest winning total: three behind the previous record of 11, which is shared by England from 1966.
At Euro 2008 Spain swept through the tournament. Their superiority was incontestable. This time they were required to recover from the shock of an opening defeat by Switzerland and advanced by stealth, carrying a tame Fernando Torres until Del Bosque abandoned him against Germany and the team came alive with their best performance of the competition. Hierarchical judgments could be stretched to include non-winners; Brazil in 1982 are a case in point, the three Brazilian Rs of 2002, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho took some stopping, but France, 12 years ago, are the most obvious point of comparison. The French defence of Thuram and Desailly were more formidable in the conventional sense and Zinedine Zidane orchestrated the team's play to a level not even Xavi could match.
France won their first World Cup without an international-class striker. When Torres ran out of chances, Spain were able to use David Villa alone up front and promote an extra midfielder.
La Roja can clinch the argument by retaining their European title in Poland and Ukraine in 2012. That would render them the most illustrious national team since Brazil 40 years ago. Gerard Piqué is 23, Iniesta 26, Villa 28, Sergio Ramos 24, Sergio Busquets 21 and Xavi still only 30. They cannot be outpassed or kicked off the pitch. Opponents know that now.
Holland betrayed their heritage but it gained them nothing. If the players stay with the programme this Spanish sun will keep on rising.
© Guardian News and Media 2010
Keywords: 2010 World Cup