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It's not as simple as it sounds. Opposing teams respond to Spain by packing in their defenses, constricting open spaces and challenging the Spanish to rev their passing rate even higher. Xavi, the ever-scheming 30-year-old playmaker, completed 544 passes (out of 669 attempted) in South Africa, the most by any player at a World Cup since 1966. Granted, not all of those passes were probing forward balls, and Spain was unable to produce as many scoring chances or goals as it did in winning Euro 2008. (Part of that was due to the poor form of star striker Fernando Torres, who was returning from a knee injury and had zero goals in the tournament.) But even though Spain scored only eight goals in this World Cup, the fewest of any winner in the tournament's history, the fact remains that its four 1--0 victories in the knockout rounds (against Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and the Netherlands) were dominant and occasionally dazzling midfield displays.
When critics in South Africa complained that Spain's games could be tedious—a variation on the old Simpsons soccer bit: "center holds it ... HOLDS it ... HOLDS IT!"—you could almost see the steam coming out of Xavi's ears. "What did people think? That we were going to win every game 3--0?" he told Spain's El País last week. "I can't believe what I am hearing sometimes. Do you not realize how hard it is? Teams aren't stupid. We're European champions. They all pressure us like wolves. There isn't a single meter, not a second on the field. We are passing faster and faster and faster. We're playing bloody brilliantly." In fact, it made you wonder how many goals Spain might have scored if the world's best teams weren't so afraid of playing them toe-to-toe instead of parking the bus. (Actually, we did get a sense of that when Spain beat attack-minded Chile 2--1 in the group stage.)
Just as Adrià 's molecular gastronomy has thrust Spanish cuisine ahead of the staid old French school that used to reign, Spain's World Cup--winning tiki-taka has pushed Brazil, the former gold standard for soccer entertainment, down a few rungs. For many fans in South Africa and elsewhere, Spain has become the new Brazil, everyone's second-favorite team. That was clear in an exchange last week between a Brazilian journalist and the Spanish players at the press conference before the final. "For us Brazilians it's beautiful to watch Spain playing, like we in Brazil used to play years ago, but not now, of course," said the reporter. "Does this Spain team have anything to do with the Brazilian soccer of the past? It's very important for everyone in soccer. Do you think this is the way that one has to play to win? That is, short passes, thinking more, using your brain?"
The Spanish players at the podium—Xavi, Casillas and David Villa—smiled, but then Casillas drove home the point: This Spanish team is not trying to copy the past, but rather to chart a new, creative course. "Personally, I think our soccer doesn't really resemble that of Brazilian soccer in terms of anything: the players, our style," Casillas said. "Each side has its virtues, its qualities and its defects. Our style of soccer is, I suppose, inspiring people. In two years to be European champions and to be here in the final of the World Cup, it shows that we're doing things the right way."
On Sunday night, after Spain won the most important trophy of all, it was hard to argue with him.
But Spain wasn't the only winner during World Cup 2010. Want to win a bar bet? Humble New Zealand, with three ties in as many games, finished as the tournament's only unbeaten team. (Recall that Spain lost its World Cup opener 1--0 to Switzerland.) Uruguay revived ancient memories of its two-time-champion past with its first run to the semifinals since 1970 and the five goals of forward Diego Forlán, who won the Golden Ball as the tournament's outstanding player. Germany finished third for the second straight World Cup, revealing two emerging stars in 21-year-old midfielder Mesut Özil and 20-year-old midfielder Thomas Müller, who carried away the Golden Boot award (for the tournament's leading scorer) and the Best Young Player trophy. Also in Germany, an apparently clairvoyant mollusk named Paul the Psychic Octopus became a global sensation by correctly predicting the results of all seven German games as well as the final.
Closer to home, soccer in America benefited enormously from the U.S.'s performance, and from ESPN/ABC's blanket coverage. The Yanks won Group C ahead of England before falling to Ghana 2--1 in the round of 16, and the U.S. television audience of 19.4 million for that game (including viewers of Spanish-language Univision) was on par with the World Series and NBA Finals. The Spain-Netherlands final, at 24.3 million, was the most-watched soccer match in U.S. television history. Overall, ESPN/ABC's World Cup ratings were up 31% over 2006 and total viewership up 41%, and the numbers for World Cup 2014 (to which ESPN/ABC also holds the rights) in Brazil figure to be even higher, with games broadcast in prime time.
Did soccer in the U.S. reach a tipping point during this World Cup? The World Cup itself did; it is now indisputably a big-time mainstream event in America. But while MLS is expanding, building new stadiums and signing recognizable stars—French striker Thierry Henry was expected to join the New York Red Bulls on Thursday—the U.S. domestic league is still losing money overall and drawing low TV ratings. "I think it's still too early to tell" about a tipping point, says U.S. and Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan, whose Q rating leaped upward after he scored three goals in this World Cup. "But we've had a very noticeable uptick in attention, support and recognition. I could tell very clearly that people are aware of who we are and what we did. How that translates over time is hard to say. But judging by our Fourth of July [MLS] game [which drew 27,000], I'd say there's a lot of excitement. We'll see how long that lasts and how many new fans we made."
For its part South Africa showed that it could stage a giant global sporting event that was well-organized and had none of the major crime or security problems that had been forecast before the World Cup. (The latest word is that Durban, the country's third-largest city, may now bid to host the 2020 or '24 Olympics.) It will be years before anyone can say if the $5 billion spent by the South African government on stadiums, roads and airports was worth it, but throughout the monthlong tournament there was the unmistakable sense that the World Cup had helped unite a nation that is still only 16 years removed from white rule. "We have seen black and white side-by-side at fan parks and stadiums who for many years were prohibited by law from sitting together," said Danny Jordaan, the chair of the World Cup organizing committee. "The demographics at the stadiums really showed football contributed toward nation-building."
The same could be said for Spain, a country that has been notoriously fractured over the years by ethnicity (Castilian, Catalan and Basque), to say nothing of soccer allegiance (most notably the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona). As the Spanish tiki-taka'd their way to their first World Cup title, the divisions softened. In the Catalonian capital of Barcelona, World Cup games were shown on big screens in public viewing spaces for the first time. Three players from Real Madrid joined the seven Barcelona representatives in the starting lineup. When Puyol and Xavi cavorted around the field with a Catalan flag after the victory on Sunday, it wasn't viewed as an affront to Spanish society. "Spain the country deserves this triumph, this reward, this World Cup," said Vicente del Bosque, the avuncular Spanish coach. "I think this goes beyond sports. We have been supported by all the people in Spain, and we are delighted to be able to offer this victory to Spain."