When the final whistle went on South Africa 2010, Andres Iniesta fell to his knees and raised his arms in glory.
“In that moment, you’re crying like you’ve never cried before.”
That’s what it meant, that feeling of being able to call yourself a World Cup winner, but not all it meant. Elsewhere on the Soccer City pitch, Xavi – more of the ideologue, some would say more sanctimonious – recalls a feeling of satisfaction.
“It is a sense of having done something good for football, not just that Spain won and we made people happy,” the midfielder told the late Michael Robinson. “It was a feeling to be able to say that we’ve marked an era.”
That is undeniably true for Spain, whose victory in South Africa was the greatest of their three trophies in that historic run, and proclaimed them as probably the greatest international team in history. As regards that era of international football in general, though, it’s a bit more open to debate.
While South Africa 2010 was a momentous World Cup for its wider context, it was instantly forgettable in terms of the football. A mostly defensive tournament was the second-lowest scoring in history, with just 2.23 goals a game, only ahead of Italia 90.
It does feel a contradiction that the greatest ever international side rose to a peak in what was a nadir for the level.
Many might say Spain themselves contributed to this, given a minimalist run of results that read: 0-1, 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. They were the lowest-scoring World Cup winners.
That is a somewhat superficial reading itself, though – one that overlooks the context, which involved a lot more than a contradiction.
South Africa 2010 happened at a historical crossroads in football, too.
It marked the end of a shift, which started with the 1999 expansion of the Champions League, where club football became the highest level of the game. International sides had generally not been capable of the same integration, the same cohesion, the same ideas. The top players were adjusting to an inferior level of play.
This wasn’t the case with Spain. They were effectively a club team, since they were dominated by Barcelona players, and integrated into a sophisticated possession-pressing approach that had also become the national style.
That approach, of which Pep Guardiola was the high priest, had sparked a tactical revolution in football.
The game was being turned on its head as Barca and Spain were lifting almost every trophy above their heads. High possession percentages translated into high win percentages as Spain went undefeated for 35 matches. The football was often spectacular. Spain had joyously flowed at Euro 2008, and in pretty much every game right up to the start of that World Cup.
That was a key period, because it was also when we saw the single most successful response to this so movement far. That was the other extreme, in one of the most intense Champions League ties ever played. That was when Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale willingly relinquished the ball, the space and the initiative to Barcelona to try and just sit deep and counter.
It worked by the slimmest of margins, but had a mass effect of its own. This temporarily became the template to tackle Barcelona and Spain. It conditioned that entire World Cup, and was the question before every Spanish match.
“A couple of days before the final, I was asked: ‘Can we [Holland] stop Spain playing in the way which allowed Jose Mourinho’s Inter to eliminate Barca from the Champions League semi-final?’” wrote Johan Cruyff – the prophet in all this.
It meant that South Africa 2010’s finest team were usually involved in its most attritional games. There was also the issue that the general shift in football meant a defensive approach was far easier to impose on a disparate group of players. It was similarly less risky and more logical against a team that would kill you given the space. Switzerland showed this in the very first match and – again, just about – got the result.
By the final, Xavi was talking exasperatedly about how there was never any space within 30 metres of the opposition goal.
Spain – and especially Spanish supporters – became victims of their own success. It was because they were so good that their games now became so nerve-shredding. The opposition had few other options. They certainly wouldn’t have the ball. It’s probable that this conditioned Spain, too.
Vicente Del Bosque had already been conscious of how the approach’s necessary high line had been susceptible to quick counter-attacks. It had the potential to become a glass jaw, but was generally well worth the risks, given the rewards.
Del Bosque had already developed a drill where one centre-half and a goalkeeper would work on counters against three attackers. That would prove decisive.
To mitigate against it further, though, Del Bosque moved away from Luis Aragones’ more open midfield from Euro 2008 and introduced a second pivot. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets would now share the work previously done by Marcos Senna alone, with Xavi pushed forward. That removed some of the thrust from Spanish passing, and may have moved Xavi away from his best position. They were still commanding, but weren’t quite as fluid.
One argument is that it made their possession more pragmatic, less proactive. That is possible, but it is difficult to disentangle that from games where long stretches would be spent with Spain trying to unravel deeply woven backlines. They insisted they were the ones still trying to impose their game, to make the play.
“I think we are involved in a battle to defend the soul of football,” Xavi said. “That’s the only way I know how to play.”
That opening defeat to Switzerland also ensured every game thereafter was sudden death. Those were the stakes. The squad were keenly aware that anything less than victory – and especially Spain’s usual early exit – would be shamefully wasting a historic opportunity.
“I had never in my life felt so nervous as against Honduras,” Iker Casillas said.
They won that game 2-0, when it should have been 6-0, ensuring there was the same feeling before the Chile match.
“The hours before that game were the most nervous I can recall since I joined the national side,” David Villa told Graham Hunter.
That suffocating tension could be felt in every match.
Villa was one big reason it was eased. There is an argument the striker was Spain’s most important player, maybe even beyond Xavi and Iniesta. Xavi defined and set the entire style, with Iniesta continuing and enhancing it, but what was so distinctive about Villa was that he fit it but was still so different. He ensured the possession had true penetration. He was the sharpest edge amid so much smoothness. Villa scored the decisive goals for four successive games, from that match against Honduras to the battle of a quarter-final against Paraguay.
It is no coincidence that Spain’s best performance by far came against the next best team, in the semi-final against Germany. That wasn’t just a case of rising to the occasion. It was also that Germany tried to play them on their terms, which played into Spain’s feet.
Joachim Low’s side just weren’t quite ready for it. The German coach admitted that afterwards, amid effusive praise for Spain.
“It is extraordinarily difficult to win the ball back if you lose it to Spain. Yes, they are definitely the best team in the world and they are going to win this tournament. In 2008, they won the European Championship in a spectacular way, totally convincing, but in the last couple of years they have evolved, introduced some changes and they now play as if they are on automatic. This team has a unique ability to dominate you and to control you. It is a marvellous team. These guys are the masters of football.”
The seeds of something else were sown there, not least for Low and Germany.
Regardless of his words, though, the World Cup still had to actually be won. Spain still had to play a final that was in its own way a fitting distillation of everything that come before: a low-scoring battle; destruction against creation; attack against defence; counter-attack against possession; a contradiction in how the Dutch went against their ideals; a philosophical battle.
“I would much prefer to win a very ugly game than lose a beautiful one,” said Arjen Robben. “The point is, we are in a World Cup final. From now on, how you actually play no longer matters. We will defend from the front; no one here feels they are too special to get their hands dirty.”
Rather different to Xavi’s words about marking an era. Alonso instead had his chest marked by Nigel de Jong, in one of the many fouls that characterised the Dutch approach. So much for the Cruyff final.
The Dutch were playing a totally different game to what they had grown up on. The reality was that, like with so many other teams, it proved the approach that offered the best possible chance against Spain. It also produced maybe the best chance of the game.
Robben himself was at the centre of one of those counters that Spain had found themselves so susceptible to.
He was sent clean through, Casillas’ goal at his mercy. Except, some of Casillas’ training paid off. So did the goalkeeper’s quality.
He spoke of the moment lasting an “eternity”. He calculatedly put his foot out, and brought himself immortality.
So did Iniesta.
He offered up what Fernando Torres described as “the goal of all goals”. Iniesta then added the gesture of gestures, as he lifted his shirt to reveal a tribute to Dani Jarque, and ensured his late friend was remembered at that moment of greatest glory.
Spain were champions. One of the worst World Cups from a pure football perspective had crowned one of its greatest teams.
That contradiction came from a crossroads that set a new path, which Germany and France would follow. If international football was never again going to rival the club game, it meant that those countries that could industrialise youth production and a certain style of football would come closest to matching it. It is no coincidence those nations won the next two World Cups. England hope to follow the example, to enjoy that greatest of feelings.
South Africa 2010 may have been a forgettable World Cup from a football perspective, but Spain’s victory there had a lasting effect.