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Friday, July 9, 2010
Spain: A love story

By David Hirshey
Special to ESPN.com

Long before a psychic octopus and the greatest player in Dutch history, Johan Cruyff, planted their 10 appendages on the Spanish bandwagon, I picked Spain to win the tournament. How long before? Well, 28 years ago, to be exact. Ever since my father -- who had instilled in me a love of soccer from the time I was able to juggle a pacifier with both feet -- bought me a red jersey with yellow trim to wear with pride at the 1982 World Cup.

This was the first World Cup I had ever attended, and my dad had convinced me that since the U.S. was not involved I should root for the hosts, who had been so warm and gracious during our stay. Plus, you couldn't go anywhere in Barcelona and Valencia, the two cities we were shuttling between, without people giving you a thumbs-up and shouting "Viva Espana!"

So, resplendent in Spain's colors, off we went to our first game -- Spain versus Northern Ireland. The silence that descended over Estadia Mestalla in Valencia that day when Gerry Armstrong converted the rebound of a spilled shot to give Northern Ireland a 1-0 victory is still seared into my brain. The word I remember hearing over and over was desconsolado -- heartbroken.

So here we are almost three decades later with Spain on the brink of finally healing a nation's soccer heart and I am praying for the Spanish to pull it off for several reasons. One is for my dad, who passed away last July, but who lived to see La Furia Roja become Euro champions in 2008. "They have broken the curse and will now go on to win the World Cup," he told me at the time.

But I'm also supporting Spain because I am one of those hopeless soccer romantics who believe that winning isn't enough unless it's done with great style. That's why I wasn't at all sad to see Brazil go out in the quarters. If the players who now wear the same yellow jersey as Pele, Jairzinho and Ronaldo couldn't conjure up anything better than a physical, defensive brand of soccer, then I say good riddance to them.

But the Spanish have remained true to their pedigree. Where others may see mind-numbing tedium in their little triangles, I see poetry in motion. Where some decry a lack of imagination, I celebrate supreme technique and Velcro ball control. Where many bemoan players who are afraid to break with speed and power, I cheer a team weaving its way down the field with short passes until it can find the killing ball to finish you off. (Did I mention that I'm also an Arsenal fan?)

Oddly, I cannot bring myself to love the Dutch in the same way. It's not that I expect them to be the electrifying Netherlands of the 1970s. But all I see in Oranje these days are technically gifted players who have been hardened by the modern game and turned into a cynical, win-at-all-costs squad -- Arjen Robben flopping like a seal who's been clubbed in the head, Wesley Sneijder remonstrating with his teammates whenever their passes aren't inch-perfect, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong looking as if they'd rather hoist a broken leg than a gold trophy.

Make no mistake, the Spaniards are no choirboys -- Sergio Ramos kicked the bratwurst out of Germany's Lukas Podolski in the semis and Carles Puyol uses his elbows as ice picks when he takes flight in the box -- but their combativeness is balanced by their creativity. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets have found a way to operate successfully in the same holding midfield role as Van Bommel and De Jong without carving their initials into opponents' shins. Theirs is a more subtle form of pressure, clogging the passing lanes to stifle the attack. Where the Dutch disrupt and force mistakes with their physical mayhem, the Spaniards lie in the weeds like a pack of cheetahs waiting for you to make that inevitable misstep they can pounce on. Fortunately, in David Villa, they possess the single most venomous finisher in the 2010 Cup and a man who has to be stroking his soul-patch with fiendish glee at the prospect of taking aim at Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, who on Diego Forlan's 30 yard curler in the semis looked about as steady as a 3 a.m. drunk reeling through Amsterdam's red light district.

And so when it comes to Sunday, I understand why Cruyff says, "I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing."

All these years after I attended my first World Cup, I, too, still believe in the Spanish way. I've lost the original jersey -- and my father -- but I never lost my love of how La Furia Roja play the game.

And that is why I predict when the winning team lifts the Rimet trophy, all of Spain will finally be jubiloso.

David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."