I remember him well. An old Italian dude, crusty as a ciabatta, in the little Chicago cafe I ducked into for Italy v. Australia. We talked a little World Cup between the Aussie fouls and the frustrated Italian grimaces. In spite of his rabid partisanship (he gave a hearty vaffunculo! when Italy converted its decisive penalty), he fancied Spain, which at that time was still ripping along nicely.
“The Spanish, they are young,” he said. “They are fast. And they play like Champagne bubbles—pop, pop, pop.”
And so it was. But as we all know now, that Champagne Spain went flat against the sturdier old wine of France in that tournament. Last night, however, the unfulfilled promise of that team—and a hell of a lot of other Spanish teams—was redeemed. The problem with champagne football is that its effervescence often masks a lack of the requisite steel backbone. After six unbeaten performances against very, very formidable opposition (let’s see: a certified Team of the Future in Russia; defending European champions; defending world champions; and, of course, the Mannschaft) and goals conceded only every 200 minutes or so, it’s safe to say Spain 2008 solved that problem. In a tournament that offered many, many flavors of the minute—didn’t Holland have a team in there at one point?—Spain confirmed its overall supremacy with a performance that had both coltish flair and grown-up intelligence. When you can make Germany flail around like that, you have mastered both sides of football, the happy-talk “beautiful game” stuff and the essential dark arts. Torres’ goal summed it all up: wily and physical as he out-duelled Lahm; brilliant and delicate in the finish.
One of the beguiling things about this sport is that you’re never quite sure what you’re seeing. Last night found me thinking that while Aragones is certainly a racist prick and looks like the host of Tales from the Crypt, he just may have assembled a team for the ages. Then again, last week I was talking about the break-through genius of Arshavin, and I was not alone. Spain certainly has the raw material for an all-time great team, but we’ll just have to see. In the meantime, this tournament was a masterwork on their part, no doubt about that.
Ze Germans, on the other hand, have an admirable team that still needs a certain something. They can start by getting rid of Lehmann, who I see whining about the referees in today’s papers. Call the whaaaaaaaaaa-bulance. Old Jens could have been sent off for handling outside the area. He has nothing to complain about. For all the talent in the team, and despite creating a real pressure-cooker in the second half, Germany never really looked like they were going to win. And that, itself, was a disconcerting thing…almost like a new era dawneth. But ask me again in two years.