James Lawton: Germany and Spain are brewing up something intoxicating
Their work is displaying a rare capacity to linger in the mind
Every sport needs the dream of ultimate performance. It is to do with the oxygen of greatness, the working on the spirit, and here in the ancient city of Kiev there is a sharply emerging prospect that may run very close.
The suspicion has been building with some intoxicating force these last few days and for it we have to thank the footballers of Spain and Germany, the ageing masters and the perennial contenders.
They have arrived, it has become increasingly clear, not just to win but to set standards on how the game should be played and, when you get right down to it, honoured for its own sake, its demands and its beauty.
Their work is displaying a rare capacity to linger in the mind, to be replayed again and again not just for the success it is bringing but for all the nuances of skill and discipline and all that can be achieved by professionals of the highest quality.
It is a collision of growing likelihood and its magnetism is drawing us towards the day of the final at the Olympic Stadium on 1 July. In the anticipation there is the reminder of how boxing was sustained for so long by the out-of-body glory of Muhammad Ali and that for the coming Olympics Usain Bolt is so much more than a shooting star. He is someone uniquely able to carry us on to another dimension beyond all the hype and the corporate hustling.
There is the same expectation when you consider the possibility of this tournament's last match.
Here, you have to believe, is something that could just make a vapour trail of all the problems, some real and others imaginary, which have threatened to drag down the world's second-most important football tournament.
Sadly, there is no escaping the risk of fresh outbreaks of racism and hooliganism and once-in-a-life price-gouging but of course these are problems for the politicians and the police whose visibility grows by the hour – and also the conscience of the Uefa organisers who granted the gift of hosting to Poland and the Ukraine without seeking even minimal safeguards for all those fans who have to eat and sleep and maybe have a few drinks between the games.
Many fans tell stories of nightmare logistics but most of them concede that the quality of the football so far has been refreshingly good and that maybe in the end could be nothing less than sensational.
Who knows, the Russians and their dazzling young star Alan Dzagoev might sneak a route to the last day in Kiev. Italy and Croatia have had their moments, and it may be that the third and fourth favourites, France and England, still entertain hopes for intrusions of their own. However, it is not so easy looking beyond Spain and Germany and those least emotional of arbiters of life's prospects agree quite emphatically. Yesterday some bookmakers had Spain at 12-5, Germany 13-5 and next best was France a long way back at 8-1. England was at a not stupendously generous 11-1.
The compulsion of a Spain-Germany final is two-fold. It is about the ability of Spain to hold on to the edge they proclaimed four years ago in Vienna when they beat an unformed Germany in the European final – and the possibility that Germany may finally have closed the gap.
Spain are not only the champions of the world and Europe but also the most extraordinary passers of the ball. Yet in the absence of David Villa, the swordsman of the World Cup triumph in South Africa two years ago, the worry was that the great virtue had turned into a fault – and a grievous one that touched on disaster when Spain could only draw with Italy after fielding a team that lacked a recognised striker.
The unsuccessful objective, presumably, was to pass the Italians to death.
Now we have, maybe, the resurrection of Fernando Torres – he was not only the killer of an eviscerated Republic of Ireland on Thursday, he might also have been the liberator of Spain.
Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque, who preferred Cesc Fabregas against the Italians, was certainly entertaining the possibility in a post-match comment that was less triumphant and more a public act of contrition. He said: "We had possession of the ball and we had to make best use of Fernando's speed and movement. He played the ideal match and those people who thought he could have played the first as well were also partly right."
Del Bosque was elevated to the rank of marquis after the World Cup win. He recently won the vote for Spain's most popular figure and the fact that he was prepared publicly to use up a little of his credit perhaps spoke more of gut-deep exhilaration than natural-born humility.
Though Ireland were plainly both outclassed and deeply undermined from the fourth minute, when Andres Iniesta cut their defence so cleanly and Torres leapt in to score with the ferocious certainty that once made him one of the world's most devastating finishers, Del Bosque's celebration was plainly about the return of a most vital dimension, the one of outlet for that stream of passes which, while threatening to bring on various forms of hypnosis in their opponents, has sometimes screamed for a point of conclusion, a decisive statement rather than a series of debating points.
If Torres had made his any more decisively against the Irish even the relentlessly censorious Roy Keane might have agreed that his compatriots were facing impossible odds.
In the unlikely event of Germany, the world's third-ranked nation, suffering even the most fleeting moments of such apprehension between now and the end of the month they merely have to re-run the video of their destruction of fourth-rated Netherlands earlier this week. It was a victory of stunning authority and beyond the superb work of such as Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, there is a frame or two which says so much about the German sense of well-being – and perhaps some of the relief displayed by Del Bosque when Torres scored two goals, including his first in four years for Spain.
They are of the great striker Miroslav Klose replacing Mario Gomez, who had just put away the Dutch with two goals which were both clinical and filled with natural grace. Lazio's Klose, who was 34 last week, has scored 63 goals for Germany in 118 games, astoundingly nearly a third of them coming in tournament play. If ever there was a statement that there is no football so beautiful that it can be sustained without finishers of such quality, this, at such a moment, was surely it.
Another point of huge encouragement for Germany is the steady force of their improvement since a Torres goal beat them in the Vienna final. In the World Cup it was apparent that they had a new and formidable young side, destroying England and Argentina on their way to the semi-final against Spain in Durban.
Spain were of course a different order of opponent but if Xavi and Iniesta were as relentless as ever in covering the ground and making their passes, they were surprised by the degree of German resistance. Indeed, the decisive breakthrough came only when the Germans assumed that Xavi was about to deliver yet another short corner. Instead, he fired it to the tousled head of Carles Puyol. It was an old-fashioned sucker punch from the masters of a new game.
Germany are almost certainly too smart now to fall for such a ruse and, anyway, Puyol is missing. In that semi-final in Durban you could sense the ebbing of German confidence early in the second half. After England and Argentina, they were stunned by both the artistry and proficiency of the Spanish game and then when Puyol scored his unlikely goal they realised there was no easy way back.
It is a doubt that may well re-form here in the Olympic stadium in a few weeks. But then no one, including the Spanish, can any longer be quite so sure of anything. It means that we are likely to have both splendour and intrigue in the air. Between them they are the lifeblood of sport and it is good to see them working so beautifully here.
Latest in Sport
A tight game could be in prospect here. Northampton have been keeping things very tight of late and ...
by Gareth Purnell
18 May 2013 02:01 AM
I can’t ever watch games of football or rugby without wistfully wondering what it must be like to be...
by Martin Ayres
16 May 2013 05:10 PM
Since PSG’s exit to Barcelona in the Uefa Champions League quarter-final in April, PSG have been sur...
by Matthew Riding
15 May 2013 02:37 PM
- 1 Heading for America? Prepare for the longest US immigration queues ever
- 2 Notes from a small island: Is Sealand an independent 'micronation' or an illegal fortress?
- 3 You thought Ryanair's attendants had it bad? Wait 'til you hear about their pilots
- 4 'Swivel-gate': David Cameron goes to war with the press over 'swivel-eyed loons' slur
- 5 It’s official: thanks to Stephen Hawking's Israel boycott, anti-Semitism is no more
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.