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Spain feels no pain

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    Teammates hoisted Andres Iniesta yesterday at a celebration in Madrid. Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 1-0 World Cup final victory over the Netherlands on Sunday.

JOHANNESBURG » Now, about creating that soccer dynasty.

Spain has won the sport’s two toughest tournaments, adding the first World Cup held in Africa to its European Championship of 2008. After edging the Netherlands 1-0 in extra time, the Spaniards were too exhausted and exhilarated to contemplate anything more than how good that golden prize looked and how much it meant.

So others can look ahead, not only to where this golden generation of Spanish soccer might take the nation, but to where the World Cup is headed and what the tournament needs.

Many countries, including the seemingly jinxed Dutch, have been blessed with one group of supremely talented players who learn the game together and apply those lessons on the biggest stages. In Andres Iniesta, who scored the Cup-winner Sunday night, David Villa, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos — the list seems endless — Spain has that crew. Nearly all are in their prime or just approaching it.

They have leadership, superb goalkeeping — mark Casillas down for both of those as captain and possibly the best keeper in the sport — and a clear understanding of the stylish Spanish way of playing soccer. After 44 years without a major title, they dominated Euros two years ago, then gave Espana its greatest sports moment in this World Cup.

"I am very happy to have won it and so proud to be part of this team and this generation of players," star striker Villa said. "We all cried a bit … the occasion called for it and now we just have to celebrate."

Few nations sustain such success through the decades; only Brazil comes to mind, although Germany comes close. With more countries and continents becoming proficient at the sport, particularly Africa despite its disappointing showing this year, Spain’s biggest challenge is maintaining that fine edge that results in championships.

"I’m proud to be from a country like Spain and I think our country deserved a victory like this and I’m really proud of all the work we’ve done today in the game," Sergio Ramos said.

More work will be required, but the Spaniards’ recent successes have carried them to a level of confidence that leads to tears of joy.

For 31 other teams at South Africa 2010, there were no such tears. Especially for the Dutch, who have been to three World Cup finals and lost them all.

They also lost their cool in the title game, which led to one of the dirtiest matches in any tournament: 14 yellow cards and one ejection. The Dutch forgot what carried them perfectly through qualifying and all six previous World Cup matches.

The Netherlands also has a strong cast that will be formidable at the 2012 Euros and probably the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Hopefully, that tournament will produce nicer moments and better soccer than this one. While South Africa proved it can handle big events and said yesterday it will consider a bid for the 2020 or 2024 Summer Olympics, only a handful of pleasant soccer memories came out of this World Cup:

» The attacking style of Germany as it combined creativity with its usual precision and power to finish third.

» The grittiness of Uruguay, the last team to qualify for the tournament. The Celeste surged all the way to the semifinals, where they lost 3-2 to the Netherlands. Diego Forlan won the Golden Ball as best player, a fully deserved honor.

» Goalkeeping brilliance, from the veteran Casillas to the previously untested Maarten Stekelenburg for the Dutch to Ghana’s Richard Kingson and Paraguay’s Justo Villar.

On the other side, FIFA has several problems it must address, starting with the officiating.

England’s Howard Webb was lauded for his previous work in this tournament, then lost complete control of the most important match. He handed out so many yellow cards early that by the second half, he ignored fouls rather than eject players with a second yellow or even a direct red card.

That finished off a World Cup in which the officiating was, to be very charitable, mediocre. Missed goals (England against Germany, United States against Slovenia) and offside goals allowed (Argentina against Mexico) plagued the event. If FIFA president Sepp Blatter doesn’t seriously consider using technology to help referees — even if only for deciding goals — he endangers the world’s most popular sporting event.

Too often, teams turned conservative, particularly in the opening group stage. Thankfully, most of the nations who advanced emulated the Germans and Brazilians the rest of the way.

And maybe the lasting memory of this World Cup will be a Spanish team that finally became a champion and tried to keep the beautiful game beautiful.


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