Spaniards shed underachiever label

The metaphorical monkey that has for decades weighed down Spain and made it a near-cripple is now, after Wednesday's semifinal victory over Germany, one good whack away from being beaten off the Spaniards' back once and for all.

The metaphorical monkey that has for decades weighed down Spain and made it a near-cripple is now one good whack away from being beaten off the Spaniards' back once and for all.

Soccer's greatest underachievers took a giant step toward immortality with a 1-0 win over Germany Wednesday night courtesy of a Carlos Puyol goal in the 73rd minute, advancing to their first World Cup final.

The ultra-stylish Spanish side masterfully dictated the pace of the match and made the mighty Germans look ordinary by playing some brilliant attacking soccer, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso pulling the creative strings in midfield.

But it was Puyol, a no-nonsense defender cut out of granite, who emerged the hero, demonstrating exquisite technique in scoring a powerful header off a corner kick to send his country through to Sunday's final against the Netherlands in Johannesburg.

Spain's first appearance in the finale of the sport's showpiece event has been a long time coming, especially for a nation with such a rich and storied soccer culture.

The Spaniards have firmly replaced Brazil as the spiritual caretakers of the beautiful game, earning widespread acclaim and setting fans' hearts racing with their entertaining and breathtaking style, known as tiki taka.

Its fast-paced, pass-and-move possession game has not only won many admirers for its beauty but plenty of matches, too. La Roja has lost only twice since November 2006 and ended a 44-year major title drought when it defeated Germany to win Euro 2008.

Still, doubts lingered about Spain ahead of its South African sojourn because of its record of underachievement.

Indeed, Spain qualified for 12 World Cups before this one but managed to advance beyond the quarter-finals only once, in 1950. Its lone international success prior to winning Euro 2008 was in 1964 when it won the European Championship on home soil.

Puzzling track record

It was a puzzling track record of futility for a nation that boasts one of the best professional leagues and bequeathed the greatest club in all of soccer to the world, Real Madrid.

But now, Spain finds itself on the verge of entering the hallowed halls of soccer's pantheon.

The shimmering waters of the Indian Ocean, located just a stone's throw away from the magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium, couldn't compare to the luminous performance put forth by the Spaniards.

Germany was considered the favourite in some quarters coming into this semifinal showdown after cruising through the tournament and racking up impressive victories over bigwigs England and Argentina.

The powerful German machine looked invincible in reaching the semifinals for the 12th time in World Cup history, outscoring the opposition by a whopping 13-2 margin.

With Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Mueller and Mesut Özil in the top forms of their respective international careers, Die Nationalelf seemed destined for a fourth World Cup crown.

But Schweinsteiger and Özil had little influence on Wednesday's proceedings while Germany was deprived the services of Mueller, who was serving a suspension.

How the Germans missed him.

One can only wonder if the outcome would have been any different had Mueller been granted the opportunity to grace the game with his infectious creativity. His replacement, Piotr Trochowski, was hardly up to the task, substituted off in the 62nd minute after looking like a drunken tourist who was stumbling down Durban's boardwalk.

For the first time in South Africa, the Germans looked clueless and bereft of ideas. You can't score if you don't have the ball, and the Germans, like so many teams before them who have suffered the Spaniards' offensive wrath, discovered that the hard way.

Spain's game of keep-away paid off

The statistics show that Spain enjoyed only 51 per cent of possession, but it seemed like a lot more. Germany was constantly chasing after the ball, but their tireless efforts were in vain.

The Germans were unable to unsettle the possession-conscious Spaniards, who effortlessly stroked the ball around the field in what turned out to be a grown-up version of keep-away.

Spain starved Germany of the ball, gorging themselves on long stretches of possession while leaving their opponents to feed off their table scraps.

Only after Puyol's marker did Spain sit back and crawl into a defensive shell, inviting Germany to come right at them.

Spain's holy trinity — Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta — are all humble men off the field, but there was nothing modest about their collective performance on this night. The midfield trio were simply sublime, effectively linking up among themselves to run the over-worked German defence ragged.

It was somewhat fitting that Puyol scored the goal that clinched a historic World Cup final berth for Spain.

The Catalan icon is the team's longest-serving player, with 10 years of loyal service for the Spanish cause, and as such, he's suffered the most heartache.

But one more win, and Puyol and his Spanish cohorts can free themselves from the shackles of their underachieving history for good.