His control of the ball, his first touch, looked just a tiny bit heavy by the exalted standards of Andrés Iniesta. The football popped up in the air and seemed to hang there, as Iniesta turned toward it with intent. Around the world we held our breath or shouted out or just waited to see if, after two hours of soccer, we would at last see a goal, and thus be spared the cheap drama of a penalty shootout to decide the destination of the World Cup trophy.
A bounce, a swing of the right leg, a despairing goalkeeper’s dive, and it was done. Iniesta, star of FC Barcelona and of Spain, ran off to celebrate, whipping off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt underneath, “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros”. In the midst of the greatest moment a footballer can possibly enjoy on the field, Iniesta recalled that a loved one, and death itself, are “always with us”: Jarque, victim last year of a heart attack at age 26, was captain of FC Barcelona’s fierce local rivals, Espanyol. (Just in case you thought the moment couldn’t carry any more weight: Jarque was a Catalan playing for what is superficially regarded as the less ‘Catalan’ team in the city of Barcelona; Iniesta is a non-Catalan Spaniard who plays for the region’s major flag-bearer.) Iniesta was soon buried in a pile of his teammates — when he re-emerged he got a yellow-card for taking his jersey off, one of an incredible 14 dispensed by the referee.
In front of my TV the emotions were mixed. One of my companions, his view probably colored by a bet he had placed on the game, cursed: “They didn’t deserve it! Spain didn’t deserve to score!” To which my five-year-old, Stella, had the perfect riposte: “They didn’t have to deserve it — they were just playing.”
Stella’s philosophical conclusion is a gentle wake-up slap after this hallucinatory month, during which morality and politics seemed to lurk in every pass, shot and tackle, and when the passionately contested realm of justice delivered, deferred and denied was covered in grass and marked by white lines.
It is hard to let it go. Certainly yesterday’s final has already been coated by a thick layer of moralizing. My friend’s view, that Spain throughout the tournament had been insufficiently aggressive and goal-hungry, is a popular, albeit minority, perspective. More common is the notion that the Netherlands got what they deserved for being so ready to kick opponents when they couldn’t kick the ball. The outcome, we are told, is ‘good for the game’, because the more beautiful team won. It’s a little hard to reconcile that idea with the fact that this final was as un-beautiful as… most World Cup finals, truth be told. (The best of them in the last 30 years have been the most one-sided.)
The Dutch in fact had looked marginally more likely to score for most of the game. The sending-off of Heitinga in extra time may have cost them, but to me it looked like the sending-on of Edson Braafheid cost them more. The left-back was a surprising substitute in extra time. Those of us who had the misfortune to watch him play for Glasgow Celtic, where he was on loan this year, were amazed to see him contesting the World Cup final; we were less amazed when we saw Spain score from the area of the field where the unfortunate Braafheid should have been defending.
Such are the little things, the unfathomable contingencies, by which tight games are decided. As glad as I am to see Spain win, as much as I would like Stella to pass and dribble like Xavi and Iniesta, rather than hack and dive like Van Bommel and Robben, I can’t pretend that this championship somehow forever validates one way of playing the game — because then I would have to accept that, if Robben had shot two inches further to the left when he broke clear in the second half, the Dutch approach would be rightfully crowned king of soccer. No, that particular throne will remain contested, with battles raging every week on the world’s football fields.
Anyway, Spain, like Barcelona in last season’s European Champions League semifinal, were sufficiently constrained in this final for even their style’s temporary crown to be tarnished. No one, today, is crowing credibly about the triumph of ‘total football’.
The relationship of the World Cup and football politics to the real-life politics that continues after the stadium has emptied is interesting, of course, but never simple. We will watch to see whether, in the circumstances, the Spanish government will find it easier to impose austerity measures on the financially stricken country, or whether separatist tendencies in Catalonia and the Basque country will be dampened in the face of a glorious all-Spain triumph. I wouldn’t count on it. The global record over the last century for democrats and dictators alike who thought they could build political victories on the foundations of sporting ones is not auspicious. Not only are sporting victories fleeting, but as much as we love our football it turns out we usually know the difference between the carnival politics of a soccer tournament and the real ones of our divided societies.
Surprisingly to myself, I have been mistaken for a sympathizer with Catalan nationalism on the basis of one or two previous articles. (The decision by the esteemed CounterPunch editors to headline my last one ‘I hope Catalunya wins’ probably has something to do with readers’ erroneous assumptions about my views.) Although Franco made it easy for us to make sloppy assumptions about the left-wing character of Catalan resistance, there is no doubt that the story is more politically complex, as in any situation where a relatively rich region seeks to break off from a poorer state.
But it would be foolish to ignore the marked Catalan colouring of the Spain team and the struggle between dueling nationalisms to impose meaning on their success. Before the game started, a notorious invader of public events who calls himself “Jimmy Jump” ran on to the field and placed a traditional Catalan hat, a barretina, on the famous golden World Cup trophy. You can be sure he is not the last Catalan who will dress up the victory in local garb. As many pundits have been pointing out, one of the small ironies of yesterday’s game is that the vaunted Spanish style of play is a direct descendant of the Dutch team of the 1970s, via that stylish side’s greatest player, Johan Cruyff.
However, Cruyff brought his ideas not to Spain in general but to the distinct footballing and political culture of FC Barcelona, and he now manages the Catalonia ‘national’ team. After the final was finished, captain Iker Casillas carried a Spanish flag, but in the shots I saw on TV he carried it low and made no effort to drape it over his Catalan and Basque teammates — in fact it is hard to recall a less flag-draped celebration after a national victory in the recent history of sports. (Pre-match indications of national sympathy turned out to be unreliable: those readers who followed my parenthetical advice in the last article to “count the anthem-singers” would have come up with a total of ‘zero’, since the Spanish anthem has no lyrics.)
Wherever their various loyalties may lie, there is no doubt now that Spain are a great team, the first international side to merit that certain description since the French of a decade ago. This was a World Cup in which no one player really lit up the tournament — Diego Forlan won the top player award on the strength of a few beautifully struck shots, not least in the meaningless but entertaining third-place game, rather than because of sustained brilliance. This was also a World Cup in which the disgusting cynicism of FIFA was again laid bare — by the Adidas ball, by the often-poor officiating, and most of all by the rampant exploitation of a poor country as its picturesque and profitable setting for the tournament.
But the sight of an excellent team is its own reward, and maybe even its own political message. Here was a group of young men, mostly from poor-to-ordinary backgrounds, enriched materially by football but still none of them before the tournament even among the top 10 earners in the sport. Working together, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, disdaining excess, treating the ball as an object to be shared among friends rather than the source of any one man’s glory, they became collectively what none of them could be individually: the best in the world.
That is, after all, pretty good politics and morality. And it’s great football.