Why Spain were anything but boring
On the one hand, you had a five-goal-thriller with sensational long-distance goals, last minute drama and some bone-crunching challenges. The next night, it was a 1-0 victory with few clear-cut chances and a goal from a corner.
What was the better semi-final? Spain v Germany, by several hundred miles.
You might think it all comes down to taste and aesthetics, and that all arguments are essentially futile. Some people will always prefer the hustle and bustle of a 3-2 between Bolton Wanderers and Hull City in the Premier League to a cagey but tactically fascinating 1-0 win by Internazionale over CSKA Moscow, and that's their prerogative, of course.
If the World Cup hasn't delivered too many high-scoring, see-saw clashes, it had little to do with a lack of ambition or talent on the pitch. Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo haven't become worse players over night. But their own teams had problems breaking down opponents who did little more than employ the most basic football strategy there is: sit and wait.
Any team, even North Korea, can get the basics of defending right these days. Playing without the ball is much, much easier than with it, because all you need to do is constrict the space and run a lot. With the right amount of drilling and discipline, playing decent defensive football is not rocket science.
But to call what Spain did to Jogi Löw's team in Durban on Wednesday night "boring" is to fundamentally misunderstand what football is about. Spain were not boring, their only crime was being far too good at playing the most difficult version of football possible: an uncompromising passing game, coupled with intense, high pressing.
It's a radical style that only evolved over the course of four years (in its most extreme form) at international level, where teams rarely ever achieve the same coherence and collective quality you regularly see from the best club sides in the Champions League. In 2006, Spain took a decision: they weren't physical and tough enough to outmuscle opponents, so instead wanted to concentrate on monopolising the ball.
"Tiki-Taka", the constant passing and going, is such a devastating tactic because it's both defensive and offensive in equal measure. You don't have to switch from attack to defence or vice versa because you're always in possession. It's a significant upgrade of the Dutch "total football", a system that relied on players changing positions. The Spanish don't have to do that anymore since the ball does all the hard work. In Durban, Spain took a long time breaking down a very organised and (potentially) dangerous counter-attacking side.
You could bemoan a lack of penetration but there was literally nowhere to go behind two lines of four players so deep that they had one foot in the Umgeni river that runs behind the Moses Mabhida stadium. Again, Spain paid the price for their ability to push back opponents by playing the ball in front of them: every few minutes, Germany went back further. The better Spain played, in other words, the more difficult it became to get behind Löw's defensive lines.
It is true that the cutting edge was missing, and that a less defensively capable side than Germany might have made it a more entertaining game, in the sense that we would have seen more goals. But to witness Spain control both the ball and the opponent in a semi-final against the best-functioning side of the tournament thus far was utterly compelling, a breath-taking demonstration of their superiority.
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, the saying goes, but that's not strictly true. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Californian cosmetic surgeons will tell you that beauty can be objectively measured when it comes to human beings: it's all a question of proportions and the right symmetry. In other words: it's about perfection.
A less perfect Spain, bumbling their way through like the Dutch did on Tuesday and a worse Germany, defending like the Uruguayans without their captain Diego Lugano might have made the game more of a spectacle to the casual viewer. But you'll be hard pressed to find a better performance than Spain's on Wednesday night.
It was, quite literally, out of this world (cup). No one can play like that in South Africa. Or anywhere else for that matter.
About the Author
Raphael Honigstein is a London-based soccer correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's biggest broadsheet newspaper. He covers German soccer for The Guardian and Talksport Radio, is the author of "Englischer Fussball. A German's view of our Beautiful Game," and writes a regular blog on www.footbo.com.