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On soccer

Finally there

Spain reaches title game for the first time

By John Powers
Globe Staff / July 8, 2010

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Maybe some Monte Carlo casino dweller had this parlay, but virtually nobody else did. Spain and the Netherlands, soccer’s two all-time underachievers, will play for the World Cup title in Johannesburg on Sunday, and the rules say one of them has to win. Not that they both don’t deserve to be there. The Dutch knocked out Brazil on the way to earning their ticket, and yesterday the Spaniards did a flamenco dance on the Germans, just as they did two years ago to lay claim to Europe.

“This is one of the greatest moments for Spain,’’ crowed David Villa, after Carles Puyol’s soaring header off Xavi’s corner kick got his mates up and away in the 73d minute.

Just making the championship match is an historic feat for Spain, which went out meekly to France’s balding Bleus in the second round four years ago and had never made it past the quarterfinals. If La Furia Roja can master the Dutch, who were two-time losers in the final in the ’70s, they’ll be immortalized from Pamplona to Sevilla. And that may be the biggest victory of all.

What’s most remarkable about Spain’s national team, other than its reputation for unfashionably early exits from the global stage, is how little its countrymen care about it. For most of them it’s club first, country second. Trying to get a Castilian to care passionately about a squad that has a bunch of Catalans is like getting him to drink Australian wine.

Most of that comes from age-old Spanish regionalism overlaid with politics. When Barcelona once added a small strip of white to its sacred navy blue and claret uniforms, its fans went loco. White is Real Madrid’s color. Real was Franco’s team and Franco treated Catalunya like an occupied land. This Spanish side has seven players from Barca, five from Real, and four from Valencia, including Villa, the striker supreme who scored all but one of his team’s goals before yesterday.

Normally those ingredients make for a syncopated symphony, yet Villa and his amigos have been nothing but harmonic ever since they were slapped awake by the Swiss in their opener. Looking back, it was a priceless loss for the Spanish, who’d cruised into the tournament as they always do and who usually breeze through their group. This time they had to come together and sweat for it, wringing five victories from just seven goals.

Nobody imagined that Spain would have to live off such meager rations. This was the most accomplished, the most creative, the most stylish team in the tournament. They were always attacking, always improvising, always menacing. And yet it took a double-rail shot from Villa, the ball ricocheting off both posts, to beat Paraguay in the 83d minute of the quarters and keep the Spanish from going home with the standard S.O.S label — Same Old Spain.

What put the Spanish in the final was a lockdown defense backstopped by Iker Casillas, who is one of the planet’s top handful of goalkeepers. Four shutouts at this level, the last three in a row, is remarkable. Who would have made book that Spain would shut out a German bunch that was coming off four-goal outings against England and Argentina?

This, finally, seemed as though it would be the Teutons’ time after losing the 2002 final to Brazil and going out to Italy in the semis at home last time. The Germans had reengineered themselves since losing the Euro final, plugging in youngsters like Thomas Mueller, Mesut Oezil, and Jerome Boateng around seasoned vets. They still had their classic virtues — discipline, stamina, patience, timing, and tactical savvy. But this was not your father’s Mannschaft. Most of its key players either were born elsewhere or were sons of immigrants.

Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, the top gunners, are native Poles. Oezil’s parents are Turkish. Boateng’s father is from Ghana, Sami Khedira’s father from Tunisia, Mario Gomez’s mother from Spain. Cacau (Claudemir Jeronimo Barreto) is a boy from Brazil. They are the face of the New Germany and they had an inspired run during this Cup, right up until they were literally headed out of it by the hippie-haired Puyol. “At the end of the day, Spain were terrific,’’ saluted German coach Joachim Low.

This isn’t the final we figured we might see, even though Spain was favored and the Dutch always are dangerous. But nobody else had the goods to get here — not the Italians, not the French, not the English, not the Brazilians, not the Argentines, not the Portuguese, and finally, not the Germans, who haven’t won since 1990, when it still was a West Side Story.

It turned out that Paul, the prescient German octopus who had correctly predicted all of his country’s results, had his arms all over the Spaniards yesterday. If Spain finally does reign on Sunday, they might name a paella after him.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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