Patient Spain set up historic final
World Cup 2010: Durban
In the end, there were no complaints. Members of the German team I saw answering questions about Wednesday's World Cup semi-final defeat admitted that Spain deserved to win. They did it in a clear, honest and analytical way, displaying an emotional control that struck me as being a very German quality.
It reminded me of an incident in Dortmund four years ago after Germany had been knocked out of the tournament at the same stage by Italy. A German journalist walked past my desk within minutes of the final whistle, looked at some statistics of the game on a television screen and told me dispassionately that the best team had won.
I asked Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer on Wednesday what he thought of the match. The 24-year-old simply replied: "Spain was the better team today."
Sergio Ramos celebrates Spain's victory. Photo: AFP
Team manager Oliver Bierhoff was slightly more expansive. "You saw in the match how strong Spain are and how well they keep the ball," said the former Germany striker. "We did not find our rhythm or the system to break down their very well-organised team and, at the end of the day, I thought it was a deserved victory for Spain."
Germany should be applauded for their contribution to this competition. They swept aside both England and Argentina in the knock-out stage and introduced three stars to the global stage in Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Thomas Mueller, who was unfortunately suspended for Wednesday's game.
But I felt that the Germans played slightly into Spain's hands by sitting too deep and hoping to strike on the counter attack. They looked hesitant and uncertain. Bierhoff suggested they lacked experience at crucial moments.
Neuer added: "We wanted to be strong in defence and make fast breaks but Spain were good in defence and did not let us. We maybe showed Spain too much respect."
Spain were the better team and deserved their victory after producing a more fluid performance than we have seen in most of their previous games in South Africa. They had 13 shots at goal, with five on target. Germany, who lost 1-0 to Spain in the Euro 2008 final, managed only two on target from five attempts.
With Pedro selected ahead of the out-of-form Fernando Torres, there was more energy to Spain's play and better interchange in midfield. The tiki-taka passing game that Paraguay successfully stifled for so long in the previous round was up and running again.
Even so, Spain's dominance for long periods did not produce many clear-cut openings and Vicente Del Bosque's side have now won their last three games 1-0.
I thought Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso shed a lot of light on his team's performance when he said: "We have seen when Germany have gone ahead in games that they have often scored again on the counter attack and we were really concerned about that."
It explains why Spain were prepared to remain patient for so long, scoring the decisive goal through Carles Puyol, who found the net with header from a corner on 73 minutes.
Carles Puyol heads the winner for Spain. Photo: AFP
It might not have been the sort of goal you would necessarily expect from this Spain team but it was nonetheless well-worked, with both Puyol and fellow defender Gerard Pique making a similar run and creating a two-against-one situation.
"We knew it might be the small details that make the difference," said goalkeeper Pepe Reina. "So we have been practising these sorts of things for the entire tournament."
A victory for Germany would have set up a final against the Netherlands that would have been rich in historical significance and rivalry. Germany's victory over Johann Cruyff's team in the 1974 final is known as "De moeder aller nederlagen" (the mother of all defeats) in the Netherlands. Subsequent matches have been brutal, spicy affairs that have often degenerated into unseemly contests.
I was at their last encounter at a major tournament, a 1-1 draw in Porto at Euro 2004. The atmosphere was sensational, the sort that can only be produced by the weight of history, and would have helped to create a thrilling final in Johannesburg.
In contrast, Spain against the Netherlands is the final with no history. Spain are at their 13th World Cup, the Netherlands their ninth, but remarkably they have never played each other in a major tournament.
All of the Spanish players I spoke to after Wednesday's game expressed an admiration for the Dutch and are expecting a very tough match at Soccer City.
"I have seen most of Holland's games," added Alonso. "They have a solid team with good quality. They work well and are strong in attack. We are expecting a tough game. Physical, technical, tactical - they are a very complete team."
I asked Neuer who he thought would win the final. Almost immediately he said: "Spain." German coach Joachim Loew agreed with his goalkeeper. "Spain are a wonderful team," he said. "They are the masters of the game. You can see it in every pass. They can hardly be beaten. They are extremely calm and convincing."
This current Spain team, the Euro 2008 champions, stand on the brink of greatness. But whatever happens, history will be made on Sunday. It will be the first World Cup final that does not involve one of Brazil, Argentina, Italy or (West) Germany.
And it means that the first World Cup in Africa will have a new winner, the eighth and the first since France lifted the trophy in 1998. That, surely, must be a good thing.