There is life during the World Cup and life the rest of the time.
The 2010 World Cup disappointed no one. South Africa proved up to the task of putting on the most important sporting event in the world. Perhaps some of the pitches could have been in better condition, but that is small potatoes. And I for one loved the vuvuzelas, loved the literal buzz that added to the buzzing going on in my own brain as the clock ticked upward to 90. This Cup was a grand success and produced a worthy champion.
The biggest surprise of the first round was Italy's departure. The Azzurri relied on the same crew that won the Cup in 2006. Four years later, hampered by an injury to the great Buffon, they were outworked and outplayed in what looked to be an easy group for passage. But Slovakia's tenacious victory in the third game spoiled the champions' return party, and those of us who wish the Italians left the theatrics at the opera were just fine with a Paraguay-Slovakia top two.
France also showed their 2006 success was past its expiration date. There is no replacing a Zidane but France's problems ran much deeper, culminating in Nicholas Anelka's mouthing off and refusal to apologize, his dismissal, and the resulting mutiny by the rest of the team. The end result of all that petulance: lost sponsorship, lost matches, and probably a lot of new money in Nicolas Mahut's pocket. Au revoir France. You were not missed.
Italy and France missed out on the European domination that ended up being the overriding theme of this Cup. Europe advanced six teams into the second round, and none of those teams lost to a non-European foe. South America looked to be the toast of the world when it fielded five, contiguous countries in the second round, but the top three teams of Europe - Spain, Netherlands and Germany - made short work of Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, with the rest of the world on the outside looking in. It will be interesting to see if Europe can replicate their success when they visit Brazil 2014.
Though it would be wrong to accuse Asia and Oceania of failure. Japan and South Korea advanced with strong midfield play and, in Japan's case, the ability to fire long-range guided missiles at any moment. Keisuke Honda was a breakout star, and not just for his blonde hair. North Korea played a proud match against Brazil before falling apart against Portugal. Australia played in the true Group of Death, Group D, knocking a highly regarded Serbian squad out of contention and tying Ghana but failing to overcome its initial 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Germany. They did themselves proud. And New Zealand will polish off many a glass of sauvignon blanc over the next four years, celebrating their status as the only team at this World Cup not to lose a single game. Well done Kiwis!
Africa had a disappointing showing, with the host country failing to take advantage of France's collapse in Group A, and only one of its six qualifiers making it through to the second round. But what a performance that was from Ghana, which took out the US of A and failed by inches to make the semifinals, in the process becoming the loser of the most dramatic endgame of the tournament. Ghana played with style and distinction, but Asamoah Gyan's genius failed him on the penalty kick in the 120th minute that would have sent Ghana through, and from there the result of the penalty kick shootout was all but guaranteed.
Some people accused Uruguay's Luis Suarez of cheating when he intentionally hand balled away a sure goal for Ghana at the end of overtime, leading to his red card and Gyan's miss. I think Suarez reacted to the moment and did what he could to preserve his team's chances of victory. I'd rather see ten Suarezes than one Arjen Robben, falling and diving all over the field like he was just hobbled by Kathy Bates. To me, repeated attempts to feign injury and draw a penalty do far more harm to the spirit of the game than Suarez's overt, readily penalized act of desperation.
Uruguay did itself proud. Suarez and Diego Forlan were constant dangers up front, and the defense was rock-solid. I would have loved to see Suarez against the Netherlands. Without him, Forlan was on his own and could not find enough openings against the Orange. Forlan became the first player to ever strike three goals from outside of 20 meters in one Cup, proof that the Jabulani ball could be conquered.
Germany once again disproved its detractors, finding itself in the semifinals yet again. They played a swarming midfield defense and drove hard to the goal every chance they got. They were technically proficient and creative with the ball. I was very impressed with this young, talented German squad. They have everything going for them looking to 2014.
Germany did us all a favor by dispatching of the perenially underachieving Brits. Wayne Rooney (not to mention his former teammate, Cristiano "C-Ro" Ronaldo) was a ghost in this tournament. The lack of chemistry is to blame; as great as Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard are in their own rights, something is missing when they link up for the Three Lions. Perhaps the EPL is overrated, fragmented and propped up by foreign talent while Bayern Munich and Barcelona field half of their nations' teams on one club. Perhaps. Note as well the Curse of Nike: in 2006 they focused their campaign on Brazil, which flamed out early. In 2010 their big ad featured Rooney, Ronaldo, Ribery, and who else - Messi? Buffon? Not to mention Ronaldhino, who didn't even make the Brazilian team. Not pictured: Forlan, Mueller, Villa. Nike, leave them kids alone.
Argentina-Germany was a true marquee matchup, and until then Argentina looked like the class of the tournament, scoring in bunches and talented all over. But Germany's pressure wilted the Argentine attack but good. South America needs to regroup, fast. Only Brazil has broken through into the finals since Argentina lost to Germany in 1990. And this year Brazil looked content to ride on its reputation rather than elevate its game. After a thorough thrashing of Chile and an opening 15 minutes of greatness against the Netherlands they relaxed, and when Felipe Melo and Julio Cesar misplayed a free kick into a giveaway goal they panicked, unable to match the Netherlands' intensity. The game was over even before Melo's red card. Brazil will need to do better, much better when the going gets tough.
A few words about the United States: Getting to the Round of 16 is now officially a disappointment. That, in many ways, is a good sign that we are a serious soccer team with real aspirations. The USA played with panache and courage. It came back in all three matches (why all the early goals allowed?). It showed more attack and creativity than ever before. And in Michael Bradley we finally have a central midfielder who can do it all. However, we need better play from our wings, and we have to hope that Jozy Altidore develops more touch over the next four years. His physicality paved the way for Donovan, Bradley and Dempsey's good deeds, but if he doesn't figure out how to put the biscuit in the basket the USA is going to have a hard time reaching its manifest destiny.
That takes us to the finalists, and for me the matchup was a morality play. Spain plays a beautiful, fluid game. Iniesta et al. are certainly capable of a dive or two, but on the other side you have the Dutch and their own Greg Louganis of soccer. Robben is a truly gifted wing. The ball is attached to his foot. He can turn around the greatest defenders in the world. He is also a flopper and a cheater, willing to wager that the referee might resist blowing his whistle once, twice, even three times but not forever. Robben's dives were especially egregious against Brazil, with both goals and the Melo red card all deriving from instances of Robben writhing on the ground and inevitably bouncing back up. In a sport that sometimes suffers from players' desperate pitches to draw a whistle, Robben is a whore.
In general the Dutch took physical play to new levels, daring the referee to card them. Van Bommel, Heittiinga et al. tackled with impunity. De Jong's cleat to the chest of Xabi Alonso in the final is a red card in any league in the world. The referee called a fairly tight game but shied away from his responsibility in that moment.
Still, it would be unfair to dismiss the quality of the Dutch attack. Robben created opportunities almost at will, and Snejder was an assassin time after time. The Dutch attacked in numbers and linked up well from back to front. They played Total Football, even if sometimes it looked more like Total Recall. They earned their spot in the finals.
In the end though, only Spain combined skill and tenacity into something sublime. Fielding a Barcelona back seven, they were disciplined and organized on defense (though Robben and Snejder found some holes). Up front, the team spun circles around opponents thanks to the passing genius of Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta and others. David Villa was tireless and opportunistic up front. And Vicente Del Bosque deserves credit for pulling Torres, David Silva and Fabregas and finding good moments from Busquets, Navas and Pedro, and ultimately returning to Fabregas in time for Cesc to miss a sure goal opportunity and then atone for it all with his deft pass to Iniesta on the right side of the box, and Iniesta blasted it to the opposite side of the net and we had history. Iker Casillas, crying on the field while the final minutes counted down. One team shediding its past, the other bitterly disappointed.
La Furia Roja, championes. A happy day for Spain and for people who love soccer.
Three years, 11 monthts. Let the countdown begin.