By Paul Gardner
Argentina 4, Spain 1. An extravagant scoreline -- certainly an emphatic one from the Argentine point of view. But hardly an honest one, for there was plenty of activity from the Spanish -- including three shots that hit the Argentine goalposts.
Five goals and plenty of chances and saves add up to great entertainment, and that’s what we got. No doubt I exaggerate -- the good stuff probably didn’t exceed the ordinary stuff. But it’s the impact of the moments and the incidents that stick in the mind that counts, that is what makes a great game, what you remember, what you talk about later, what you would like to see again. This was excellent soccer, brilliant at times, the real thing.
Except that there will be plenty of voices denying that. To them, this was not the real thing for the very obvious reason that it was an exhibition game.
There is no answer to that reasoning. Had these two teams played each other in South Africa, we would have been able to make a direct comparison of the opposing tactics in each game, and to get a clear idea of what the teams had done differently.
But we don’t get those parallel situations very often, if at all. The comparisons between a World Cup game and a friendly are bound to involve a great deal of speculation anyway, if only because games between the same opponents are bound to be conditioned by what happened in the previous meeting.
Anyway, we are surely aware by now of the melancholy truth that the more important a soccer game, the less chance we have of seeing the sport at its best. The necessity to win means to win at all costs, and it is the sport that suffers. The disgraceful performance of the Netherlands in the 2010 final is all the proof that’s needed. The Dutch, evidently scared of Spain, set out to stifle its play -- mostly by foul means -- and thus concentrated on negative play, had little constructive of their own to offer. A stalemate.
Yesterday, both teams played open attacking soccer. And Spain lost. I repeat, it seems quite pointless to ponder what might or might not have happened in a real game. What we got yesterday was a lot of very good and very exciting soccer ... surely, that should be real enough?
From both teams we got swift, purposeful, accurate passing. The ball control was immaculate, enabling possession to be maintained long enough for the ball to reach the opposing penalty area -- and that was where, in its finishing, Argentina produced two moments of sheer breathtaking class. The first goal took 15 seconds to unfold, from an interception by Martin DeMichelis deep in his own half the ball went to Ever Banega to Gonzalo Higuain, to Lionel Messi, to Carlos Tevez -- and then back to Messi racing into the Spanish area.
Then Messi did what we’ve seen him do before, but it will always astonish, this ability to chip the ball softly upward while running at full speed, softly up ... up ... up and over goalkeeper Pepe Reina and softly down and into the goal. With that bewitching left foot, of course.
Three minutes later, Argentina was at it again. This time a mere 11 seconds of build up, six passes, and Higuain skipped around Reina and scored from a very tight angle ... with his left foot. No, his finish hadn’t the artistry of Messi, but the firmness, accuracy and quickness of his shot were mighty impressive.
Two wonderful soccer sequences, involving some 12 passes, all of them made along the ground. In fact, the only time the ball was airborne in those movements was when Messi chipped it over the goalkeeper.
The Spanish coach, Vincent del Bosque, will not feel too upset, after all his defense was lacking four first-choice players: Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol and Joan Capdevila. We saw plenty of smooth passing from Spain, repeated threats on the Argentine goal -- but the deadly finishing that had brought those first two Argentine goals, that Spain could not find.
Those two goals shone brightest on this sunny and rainy afternoon, but there were other moments to delight the Argentine crowd, moments when that sudden delighted, excited, triumphant shout of “Ole!” rose as one voice from the crowd to hail a moment of unusual soccer magic: an artful back-heel from Gabriel Heinze, and then the master-magician Messi again, trapped against the sideline by two Spanish defenders, and impudently lifting the ball over their heads to run free.
Spain looked more like Spain as the Argentines eased up in the second half. But was Argentine coach Sergio Batista correct to say that “Argentina was the reason that Spain was not the Spain we are used to seeing”? He meant, of course, that we did not see a winning Spain. But in an important way, this Spain was more like the real Spain than anything we saw of Spain in South Africa, where it was repeatedly faced with massively defensive opponents.
Against Argentina, Spain could play much more openly than it was ever allowed to do in South Africa. Or perhaps, than the forbidding seriousness of the World Cup permitted. Yesterday’s game gave us real soccer, complete soccer. By which I mean soccer displaying all its facets -- including the physical -- but dominated by it skills.
It was there, 90 minutes in Buenos Aires, as a reproach to the dross that was far too often played in South Africa. Never mind that this was only an exhibition game, that it wasn’t serious ... this is the way that a real soccer game should be played, this is what a World Cup game should look like.