Of course the assist came from Xavi. The fact that it was a back-heel, one of those made possible by the invisible eyes that peeked through the number 8 on his shirt, made it even sweeter.
The Spanish peninsular manages to squeeze out midfielders at the rate of a sausage factory, seemingly doing so in order to embarrass the rest of Europe – and its production line was never more formidable than in 2010. In this case, the player of the tournament award at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa belonged just as much to Xavi as it did to Andrés Iniesta. Or maybe it didn’t.
It was somebody else on that remarkable team at the turn of the decade – the man who turned Xavi’s typically audacious flick from a pass to a tally on the assist chart – who rightfully deserved to be called the third-best player in the world. David Villa is not the hero immortalised in the photos of the World Cup-winning goal – he wasn’t even on the pitch at the moment the ball hit the net – but without his unmatched performances that summer, La Roja would still be in the queue for a golden star above their badge.
In the tournament of the plastic swarm, where Vuvuzela-holding fans gathered and trumpeted their way around South African stadiums, David Villa emerged a national hero. He will not have in his living room a large, plastic horn as a memento for the World Cup; the gold medal he owns is probably not only a sufficient substitute, but a most-treasured achievement in his long career.
Just a decade ago, €50m wasn’t a pittance in football negotiation. Such a substantial fee was paid by Valencia to Barcelona for the services of Spain’s top marksman. Twenty-three days after moving up the Costa Dorada, Villa started for Spain in their opening group game in Durban. Along with shocking the football world into silence with their uber-possessive style of play, the Spanish also left mouths gaping when a lacklustre performance saw them lose the game 1-0 to Switzerland.
Before the match, Rob Smyth of The Guardian had called the sub-par quality of football at the tournament “sexless”, but claimed that Spain’s style was “football erotica”; against the Swiss, not only did Spain not score, they fell asleep in bed.
The media on home soil was typically apocalyptic in its reaction: while some papers showed shots of Villa on his knees and Iniesta sprawled out on the grass, MARCA’s “The same Spain as always” – plus a huge picture of a shell-shocked Xavi – could well have come with an “I told you so” sticker.
Having missed a multitude of chances in the opening fixture, the price tag lay heavy on Villa’s shoulders; there was no longer a worthy debate over the modern, spiky-haired number 7 that had long ago replaced the wavy locks of Raúl, but Spain’s loyalists were never far from raising their hands and voices in question.
Luis Aragonés had originally dumped Raúl out of the national squad and nearly set the peninsula on fire in the process. Known as “The Wise Man of Hortaleza”, Aragonés was never a man who shied away for fear of making a fool of himself – or anybody else for that matter. His methods were revolutionary and much of the old guard that had previously underperformed in international tournaments was thrown out, Aragonés choosing to go for the possession-based style of tiki-taka (named after the click-clacking sound the ball makes when being pushed around the pitch at high speed) with the abundance of small, technical midfielders that Spain had actively been aiming to produce for years.
As goes one of football’s oldest mantras, ‘back to basics’ was the way forward with Villa in turning around Spain’s stuttering start to the World Cup, and there wasn’t much that he did better in his last season for Valencia than driving down the pitch and into the box from the left-hand side.
Dancing with the ball at his toes, he edged towards the corner of the area and with two flicks of his favoured right foot – one going outside followed by an instant forward touch – he slipped the ball past a pair of defenders who could only bump angry heads with one another like confused cartoon bank robbers. He continued ferociously into the box and, in the same stride, stopped the ball dead and with one, two, three of the gentlest touches. He edged the Jabulani away from the attempts of another lumbering centre-back and fell backwards onto the floor. But not before he had made contact.
Villa scooped up the ball, sending it spinning away from him and his opponent, moving at a speed and angle which made the attempt from the goalkeeper commendable but ultimately futile. The top corner bulged and Spain screamed at the change in the scoreboard: 1-0. The celebrations were more of relief than joy; Iker Casillas could finally fulfil his habit of touching the crossbar in thanks, although his puffed-out cheeks perhaps showed the tension that had consumed him in only a quarter of an hour. Now, the shackles were off, La Roja could finally have fun.
After half time, during the celebration for Villa’s second goal, there was more of a smile, more of a sign that the team actually enjoyed playing football for a living, and the fans watching could enjoy it too. Five minutes after the break, having again drifted in from the left, Villa met the ball in the centre of the pitch, just outside the box, and struck a fierce shot with the inside of his boot. The effort from the defenders in stopping the ball only made it worse for their ‘keeper, who struggled to contain the deflected effort, watching it fly past while still maintaining his dignity with another flailing attempt at a save.
Spain’s almost-luminous, happy red shirt, now paired with even brighter blue shorts, had just witnessed its maiden win. His double against Honduras showed just why Villa was one of the best finishers in Spain; the form that saw him score 21 league goals had returned and reminded the belittling press of his incredible talent of football’s simplest ideal: putting the ball in the back of the net.
That Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile side were at the World Cup at all was a success in itself, and losing just 2-1 to Spain was even more evidence of the work under the Argentine. Spain, for the most part, had been put under pressure by a typically high-pressing relentless Bielsa side, but their game plan fell apart when a sloppy clearance from Claudio Bravo was pounced upon by Villa near the halfway point – almost in line with the motionless opposition manager. The instep of the Asturian’s boot and the immediate spin on the ball told everyone where it was to end up. The ball only bounced once before hitting the back of the net and Spain were 1-0 up.
Chile continued to press, but a quick break saw Villa rush down the left of the pitch before laying it off for Iniesta to finish. A Rodrigo Millar goal saw Chile’s hopes of topping the group grow, but Spain reverted to type and immediately shut the game down with their management of the ball, running the clock down and running Bielsa’s warriors out of steam in time for the final whistle to blow.
A final score of anything other than 1-0 became a rarity for the national team, with the main reason behind such an odd occurrence being necessity. Successfully argued by their unprecedented success, Spain’s unique style was to hold near-absolute possession, tiring out the opponent, limiting their chances, ultimately only needing a solitary goal. Dictating the shift in style was a core of Barcelona players: Puyol, Piqué, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. David Villa was the latest in a long line and the perfect finisher at the top of the pyramid.
Meanwhile, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder put the Netherlands through while three unanswered goals from Dunga’s Brazil saw Bielsa’s Chile return home. Frank Lampard’s shot crashed against the crossbar and over the line in one of football’s more unjust moments, sparking calls for technology to be introduced into the game in an effort to remove doubt.
History will undoubtedly make spectators look back favourably on La Roja and their strangling methods of success, but that isn’t to say they didn’t suffer. Having to play the first knockout round against Portugal was arguably one of the crueller decisions that fate decided against them – and it showed. Cristiano Ronaldo rained free-kicks from afar at Casillas’ goal while Raúl Meireles ran and ran.
Pepe, like a teacher patrolling the school hall for students jumping class, swept authoritatively in front of the back four in an effort to keep Spain’s tiki-taka efforts from entering too deep into enemy territory; Portugal were aware a simple slip of the boot could lead to the ultimate punishment of letting Spain in who, when they sensed blood, could pounce and attack with all the necessary flair and wolf-pack cooperation. Just after the hour mark, with the scoreboard still at 0-0, the ball fell to Iniesta on the edge of a crowded box. He quickly slipped it into Xavi, who had his back to goal.
Constant head-turning in an effort to look for space had earned Xavi two things at Barcelona: the nickname “The Exorcist’s Daughter” and 360-degree vision. His spatial awareness allowed him to effortlessly arch his back and raise his heel behind his head, pushing the rolling ball along just enough to reach the overlapping Villa, who smashed it at Eduardo. The ball bounced back and Villa’s quick feet allowed him to steady himself and have another bite, this time placing the ball to the right of the goal.
From the replay, one can see Eduardo’s expression change with a glimmer of hope, as the ball dinks off the far post and across the goal line. But he can’t save it. As time stops, it rolls all the way across the goal-line, onto the opposite post and, finally, into the back of the net. Spain go through 1-0.
If fate was cruel in handing Spain a tie against Portugal in the last-16, it was canny in the quarter-final. Paraguay, while on paper looking like a dream tie, had proven themselves to be a bogey team for many: they had progressed to the final eight by scoring just three goals and conceding only one. Slovakia and Paraguay had failed to break down their defence during the group stages and Spain’s passing suited them just right: holding on was their speciality and a Japan team containing Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki drew 0-0 after 180 minutes, losing on penalties.
But predictions only work until the first ball is kicked. When Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres blew for a foul early in the second half, he held the fate of the nation of Spain in his hands. Gerard Piqué had been judged to pull Óscar Cardozo’s arm and Paraguay were given a penalty. Joan Capdevila recalled the moment: “When a penalty comes against you in that moment you think ‘God, the whole world is coming down’, we could be out [of the tournament] – but then our saint appeared.”
He means Casillas, a man with an ace up his sleeve. The goalkeeper touched his crossbar and dived the correct way, hard down to his left. His secret was Pepe Reina who, thanks to excessive preparation, had warned Casillas of Cardozo’s penalty tendencies. The save was not an insignificant moment. Casillas scrambled to his feet and released the ball like a hot potato; Spain broke fast down the pitch and, before Cardozo had taken his hands away from his face, Villa was in possession.
He burst into the opposition box and tumbled to the ground, shoved down by a sloppy challenge from Antolín Alcaraz. The striker had worked hard to make it into the box and Xabi Alonso repaid his efforts with a cool-as-you-like smash into the left-hand corner. One-nil. Casillas thanked his crossbar.
But Batres wasn’t happy, as many eager players had encroached the area. He blew his whistle and Alonso was forced to retake. This time he went right and so did the goalkeeper. In the resulting madness from the parried shot, Cesc Fàbregas was taken out by Villar who scrambled wildly to get a fingertip on the ball; Bartres waved away the protestors.
Time ticked on, La Roja huffed and puffed and Pedro hit the post before it came to Villa, who instinctively tapped it to his right, setting himself up to shoot before his brain had processed any other options. Before anyone could react, the ball was struck and hit the opposite post; time froze in the stadium.
In either the following second or the following half an hour, the ball trickled across the goal line, needing only a change in the wind to put Spain into the semi-finals of the World Cup. The ball spun clockwise as it made contact with the opposite side of the woodwork and bounced inside the net. Spain led and Villa’s instinctive lethal ability had shone through again.
“When we go out onto the pitch and stand side by side, the Germans are so much taller, so much stronger than us.” Guillém Balagué is not the only man in Spain who once feared Die Mannschaft. For years a hysteria – a genuine sense of fear – has sat deep within the feelings of the Spanish nation. But before the game in the semi-final, the Spaniards, bound together by the ties made in Euro 2008 under Luis Aragonés, simply looked at each other and said, “Germany? So what?”
Carles Puyol had said something even more important. During the interval, with the score 0-0 and Spain’s possession high but fruitless – as the laws of physics should have them – Xavi got a tap on the shoulder and a finger in his face. “Put it on the penalty spot. Put it on the penalty spot and I will be there.” Puyol had hatched an unorthodox plan from the team built around technical midfielders: smash the ball in from a set-piece with his head.
As the clock ticked onto 72 minutes, Xavi swung his boot at the corner flag and an unmarked Puyol wasn’t even in the box, his presence deemed unimportant by the German defence. But inside his mind, he held the simple but deadly message: run like a train. Puyol’s long hair made him stand out from the rest of the gelled, slick, 21st-century flock that had gathered where he intended to be in a few seconds. The Catalan was regularly a man who looked of a different generation, a breed apart.
The number 5, with his surname stretched out over his even bigger shoulders, sprang upwards with his tree-trunk legs, contorted his whole body mid-air as to generate maximum power, and threw his grimacing face at the unaware ball as though he hated Manuel Neuer and everything he had ever done. This time, it wasn’t Villa. But the ball nearly ripped the net and the glove from Neuer’s fingers.
Nor would it be Villa who scored in the final. Vicente Del Bosque started him in the last game of the tournament but replaced him after 106 minutes, bringing on Fernando Torres in his place. Xabi Alonso and Pedro had been replaced by Jesús Navas and Fàbregas earlier and the three substitutes would combine to form a pathway for Iniesta to give Spain and its people the highest achievement in football.
When Yorkshireman Howard Webb blew the concluding whistle in the World Cup final, Casillas touched the crossbar and Spain fell to its knees in celebration. He too would make it in the photo album. That famous duo of talents than San Iker possessed – luck and unfairly-quick instinctive reflexes – had seen him pull of the most astonishing one-on-one save against Robben and his deadly left boot.
Their second trophy, in what would be an international treble, was at that point a historic success; the Euros had ripped the monkey from their back and now Spain had climbed to the summit and shown the world that they were kings. Captain Casillas lifted the trophy and cameras flashed, doing their work for the morning papers who were currently burning all copies of the Switzerland reaction.
David Villa’s goalscoring run had come to an end after the quarter-final stage with the goal against Portugal his last chalk mark on the tally chart. But he had pushed his team so far with an incredible show of versatility and finishing instinct at the very highest level of football. He ended the tournament as the winner of the silver boot; assists had to be used to separate him and 20-year-old winner Thomas Müller. But in this team, individual awards counted for little, as the squad camaraderie was the cliché brought to life that had been the key to solid relationships on and off the pitch.
After the tournament, the microphone was, as always, passed to squad entertainer and unlikely hero Pepe Reina, who introduced every player with a personalised message before stepping out onto the Madrid streets to show off the World Cup trophy. After Iniesta, their number 6, the man who scored the winning goal, it was Villa’s turn, and in typical Reina fashion, Villa’s tribute was as light-hearted as it was perfect in meaning; “Number 7, David Villa! Spain’s goal-machine!”
By Joe Brennan @j4brennan