Best World Cup games since 1998 – Netherlands 5-1 Spain

The Spain-being-boring stuff has already been touched upon in this series, but it’s probably worth covering properly here, seeing as this was the game that ended that era.

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona (that’s them between 2008 and 2012) were, without a doubt, one of the most attractive football teams of all time. They’d play creative, short-passing football; press teams high up the pitch, attack constantly, and had Lionel Messi. Some of the most enjoyable games of the last five years were ones in which Barca schooled sides like Real Madrid and Manchester United, who, in theory, should have been in their weight-class. Not only was their style better than everyone else’s, but their substance was too.

Del Bosque’s Spain side contained many of the same players – Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Pedro, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and David Villa, so used a similar, short-passing, possession-hogging game.

However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Spain’s idea of possession football was less about pulling teams apart, and more about boring them into submission. Loads of pundits argued that Spain’s style still made them attractive, despite it being blatantly obvious that they were just passing the ball from side to side and beating every team 1-0. They were essentially one of the blokes from Geordie Shore (hear me out); just because they have some characteristics that you’d associate with attractiveness – quiffed hair, muscles, tattoos, etc – doesn’t change the fact that they’re short and ugly.

To an extent, it was probably an Emperor’s New Clothes-type case too; people were told so frequently that Spain played good football that they actually believed it. It wasn’t until midway through Euro 2012 that anyone actually piped up and argued otherwise.

After a series of underwhelming (or, more simply put, boring) World Cups, someone had to set a precedent, and, despite having a defence full of football manager regens, Holland did the good deed.

The first 40-ish minutes went pretty much as you’d have expected. Busquets and Xavi passed the ball to each other a lot, Spain created a couple of chances, and scored a penalty. Xabi Alonso rolling the ball into the corner of the net, past Jasper Cillessen (nah, me neither), seemed to be a strong indication of things to come. Having got their goal, the world champions were sure to spend the remaining hour passing the ball prudently around the centre-circle with little desire to build on their lead, or do anything remotely interesting.

Then Robin van Persie equalised, and it was a work of art. The fact that it came out of nowhere, both in terms of the move and in terms of the match as a whole, made the goal so much better. Sometimes it’s enjoyable to see a team pushing for a goal, and building up suspense before finally making a breakthrough – but this was the complete opposite. Think Leo Di Caprio’s death at the end of The Departed. One unexpected bullet connecting with a lead character’s head, and suddenly the story isn’t petering out the way you expected it to.

Daley Blind could, can and will try that 70-yard diagonal pass from left-back another thousand times, and most of the time will send it flying out for a goal-kick or throw. However, part of van Persie’s brilliance is his ability to cash-in the one outrageously speculative long-ball that does actually find him –with one touch. He soared through the air (slightly) to score the best World Cup headed-goal since Jared Borgetti’s 180-degree neck-twist for Mexico against Italy in 2002. It was only let down by the tame, half-missed high-five with Louis van Gaal during the celebration. Come on Robin, mate, keep your eyes on his elbow.

From then on, it was a thrashing. And not just your standard ‘the other team just gave up/left themselves too open to a counter attack’ thrashing, but a combination of excellence from the Dutch and comedy goalkeeping from Iker Casillas. While Arjen Robben can be frustrating, greedy, lazy and dislikeable, he was devastating in this match. Being given a free role in the Dutch forward line, Robben’s pace and directness cut Spain’s rear-guard to ribbons, scoring two fantastic goals, and nearly creating another for van Persie, whose right-footed volley hit the crossbar. To add to this, Casillas made two embarrassing errors; first he missed a Wesley Sneijder set-piece ,which was turned into the unguarded goal by Stefan de Vrij (again, no idea), then he mis-controlled a back-pass, allowing van Persie to gratefully steer to ball into the net.

Seeing a team who have been at the top of the pile for so long get toppled is an enjoyable watch in its own right; Spain had won three major tournaments on the bounce, so probably had it coming. However, there is something frustrating about the fact that a side containing that many gifted footballers didn’t play in a more exhilarating manner, especially considering the amount of them did so at club level. Yes the boring stuff worked, but when you have eight or nine world class players in your first eleven, and another three on the bench, any half-decent, coherent system would probably result in success. For this reason alone, Spain probably deserved a proper humiliation, something to really tarnish their legacy.

In truth, this Netherlands side aren’t always as amazingly exciting as this performance suggested, nor are they as good as Spain circa 2010, but by beating the world champions, they set down a marker. They eradicated a side who had previously dominated the game with their dull brand of football. And did so by doing the two things Spain didn’t: playing fast, attacking football, and scoring lots of goals.