I’m loathe to mention him here, particularly in a vaguely positive light, but Nick Hornby once said something interesting about football. It was in Fever Pitch, if I remember rightly, and it was to do with the way that supporters tend to use players as a mirror of their own values. So, a certain kind of middle class, thinking man’s fan will praise players for their intelligence and their artistry, particularly ones with a “cultured left foot”.
This language is highly revealing, more a checklist of cultural aspiration than an observation of footballing aptitude. It’s the reason that Arsene Wenger remains the darling of Arsenal, even if they don’t win anything. At least they lose in the right way. Similarly, tabloid sports pages typically praise workrate, commitment, bravery and strength in players and have no time for left feet, cultured or otherwise.
In English domestic football, there is clearly a class basis to these differences. Oddly, this only becomes more accentuated in international competition where a whole ragbag of other prejudices are brought into play including post-colonial guilt, cultural genuflection and recent geo-politics.
Of course, tedious national stereotypes count for a lot. It is impossible, for instance, for Brazil to play a game without the camera trawling the stands for beautiful ladeez while Clive Tyldesley makes endless references to Samba football. The interesting thing – and I’m far from alone in pointing this out here – is that Brazil could turn up and kick seven shades of shit out of the opposition whilst eaking out a nil-nil draw and they would still come away with their reputation intact.
National football reputations tend to be forged in some primordial sludge, out of which teams emerge fully formed, ready to fill out their pre-determined destiny. Nothing that actually happens to them during the course of the tournament will disrupt assumptions about the essential quality and character of their football.
Take Holland, for example, the perennial darlings of the more aesthetically inclined football fan. Every World Cup the same epithets are wheeled out. They are the aristocrats of Europe, solitary exponents of Total Football and, officially, the Best Team Never To Win A World Cup. Well, all that was true in 1974 (and ’78 although they were already by then without the talismanic Johan Cruyff) but since then they have, by and large, done little to justify the hype.
There is, as Zone Styx has pointed out, a sort of cognitive dissonance at work when people watch football. Regardless of what is actually happening on the pitch, they use the game to reinforce basic prejudices. A poor performance will merely elicit a series of questions as to why the team, say Holland, have not fulfilled their potential, or suggestions that they will really turn it on in the next game.
Like most forms of irrational belief, footballing prejudice is a self-fulfilling prophecy. All events reinforce the basic underlying assumption, however illogical. For some people, there are no German flair players, simply because they refuse to recognise them when they appear. As the current generation’s players are written off as workmanlike and predictable, so the myth is perpetuated. This is how Germany play, and this is how they will always play. Bastian Schweinsteiger, as sophisticated and subtle a player as you're ever likely to watch, was always battling against such popular misconceptions.
Spain have a similar but opposite affect, evoking weak-kneed wonder at their every move, even if it doesn’t get them anywhere or is boring to watch. They are poised forever before a moment of magic. Spain are a form of endlessly deferred wish-fulfillment, carriers of the flame for fans of sophisticated European culture (and a great nightlife) everywhere.
The fact that they have won most of their games one nil (with the goal, as Mark has pointed out, usually scored in the last 15 minutes of play after the opposition has become exhausted) never seems to puncture the myth. Last night’s match was a case in point, a game where Germany looked increasingly shagged out, not so much outplayed as outlasted. OK, so that’s unfair. Spain won because they kept possession superbly and (eventually) scored. But the goal, when it came, was not a thing of beauty, more the exception to their style of play rather than the rule.
Having said all that, a Holland versus Spain final is still a pretty fine outcome. A guaranteed new name on the cup is intrinsically a good thing. It could also put paid to some of the more irritatingly clichés of the international game. If Holland win, they will no longer be The Best Team Never To Win The World Cup. And, whatever happens, Spain can no longer be described as the perennial under-achievers of Europe. Two myths can be buried in one afternoon. Result.