The final day of a World Cup always seem to bring a certain sadness. We all know that it's more than the pageantry, the pre-match concerts, the hour-long studio show, and the dramatically-narrated, U2-soundtracked commercials.
It's the natural buildup: the qualifying, the tie-breakers, the managerial shuffling, the debate surrounding the final rosters, the locale, and, most importantly, the promise that this time around, it could be our year. Once it all comes to an end, we're left with a certain void that only a tournament as grand as the World Cup could only fill.
As expected, the final day of the 2010 World Cup was a difficult one to witness. After all, it's easy to get attached to the idea of nightly panel discussions, the slick production by ESPN, the match replays, Ruud Gullit's unbridled homerism*, and Landon Donovan leading off the 11pm SportsCenter. For me, it's the stuff of dreams, however twisted those dreams may be.
(*At first, I would've put my money on Steve McManaman as the bigger homer. But once the English were bounced, the smart money clearly went to Gullit. He clinched it, of course, with that sleek orange tie for the Final.)
Knowing that all of the above was nearing its conclusion, there was, of course, the simple matter of the World Cup Final before us.
The Final. The decider of who's the best in the world. The time-tested way to determine the top of the class. The undisputed arbiter of world football champion.
Now, it's almost impossible for any final to ever live up to its own hype. This time around, it was especially difficult after yesterday's midsummer blockbuster between Germany and Uruguay.
But this isn't about third place matches. This is about the final.
In one corner, we had the Dutch, who became the very first side to qualify for the tournament after dominating the qualifying stages. They were graceful, yet edgy. In the opposite corner was Spain, the European Champions, the methodical, yet understated bunch that somehow managed to get to the final by scoring only two more goals than Wesley Sneijder.
Both thirsted for their first Jules Rimet Trophy. It promised to be a final for the ages. What it became was something different. Far, far different.
First of all, I agree with Gullit's assessment: it was a bad final to watch. No disrespect to the Spaniards, but it was a mind-numbing affair, full of missed chances, anti-climaxes, and dull football. More disturbingly, it was a two-hour argument for why so many still hate this game.
Netherlands-Spain was a disjointed, underwhelming performance that simply betrayed the idea that these were the two best teams in the world. Spain, for all of its accolades and praise, plays some of the most sleep-inducing football I have ever almost nodded off to. I mean that. Is it mandatory that each buildup require a minimum of seventy passes?
Spain may have been the better team today, but they sacrificed style for results. When did it become cool to win games 1-0? If this is the future of football - a passapalooza that culminates in a solitary goal - it looks like the game is quickly approaching a nuclear winter.
And where do we begin with the Dutch? I have never seen a team as talented as them turtle up in such a high profile match. Their semifinal against Uruguay was a classic Dutch performance - good passing, sensational finishing, and the obligatory shoddy defending. Maybe I was naive to think they'd continue down that route. They must have read the papers and internets, because they quickly confirmed who the better side was by playing like a bunch of thugs. Someday, Nigel de Jong will have to answer for his transgressions.*
(*I don't doubt de Jong's skill as a central midfielder - and I'm not just saying that - but why does he resort to the streetfighting stuff? Does he lack confidence in his abilities? Someone give that guy a role model. Or a hug.)
Going beyond the performances, referee Howard Webb lost control of the match early and liberally awarded cards, which made two hours feel like the final two minutes of a one-possession basketball game. It was tantamount to watching a full season of The Hills and having to endure the commercials. I fear there's a circle in Hell full of football fans that will have to endure this match on endless replay for eternity.
After it was all said and done, the World Cup proved the same thing it has for the past forty years: boring football reigns supreme. Total football, for all its grace and glory, was trumped by cold, bottomline tactics in the 70's and nearly every Cup winner since has won using mechanical, soulless football. And it will probably continue that way until an overachiever like Uruguay, who played with creativity, passion, and flair, somehow luck their way to the top.
They say that one match changes everything. This tournament changed nothing.
Farewell, South Africa.