Spain, the New Brazil

October 16, 2008, 1:02 PM

David Villa, who scored the winning goal Wednesday against Belgium, has five goals in World Cup qualifying this year. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS –- How sweet it is to see Spain play. Live. In person. It is not like it is on TV, where the camera follows the ball and the intricate orchestral maneuvers that ebb and flow around the play cannot be seen.

A full, expectant crowd of close to 50,000 came to the Roi Baudouin Stadium on Wednesday night to see Belgium play Spain. Most, of course, were here to support Belgium, which has made a vigorous and impressive start to its World Cup qualifying campaign, but even the most partisan supporter was also here to savor Spain’s skills, those of the European champion, unbeaten in 27 matches.

The Belgians were welcoming, in a commercial way. In the city center, those stores that sell what the English call “tat” to tourists, peddled giant Spanish flags to arriving supporters. As if, you know, many had not thought to bring one along on the trip. It this city, where the European Union is administered, it seemed a E.U. idea to provide, efficiently, all necessary accouterments for a big game. Small bars and restaurants offered paella for a mere 10 Euros (about $13) and a game-day special of Stella Artois beer for 5 Euros. The few Spanish fans I saw downtown seemed more interested in finding out when the clubs that featured go-go dancers opened for the night. They are cocky, the Spanish, and interested in sexy things. Their team plays sexy soccer.

But there was no welcome mat for Spain at the stadium. After seven minutes Belgian striker Wesley Sonck stunned the European champions with a headed goal. The Belgian team and fans were ecstatic. Before this, you see, Spain had not conceded a goal in seven games and goalkeeper Iker Casillas had not allowed a goal in 710 minutes playing for his country.

For the next few minutes of this game, played by both sides at a blistering pace, Spain looked dumbfounded. There was more gloom when striker Fernando Torres left the field with a hamstring injury. But then, as champions do, Spain found its extraordinary, defining rhythm and determination. Cesc Fabregas, who replaced Torres, was superbly placed to pounce on a loose Belgian pass and Andrés Iniesta, seeming to grasp the move before it happened, was already in place to take the pass from Fabregas. He danced around two defenders, blithely rounded Belgian keeper Stijn Stijnen and fired into the net from an acute angle. That was 30 seconds of breathtaking skill, speed and perception.

Spain’s Andrés Iniesta, left, thanks Cesc Fabregas for setting up his equalizer. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Amazingly, it was mere months ago that Spain carried the tag of eternal underachievers. Spain qualified for all the major tournaments, had a bottomless supply of talent and yet always failed to reach the final four teams, let alone win a tournament. Before last summer, Spain’s lone title was the 1964 European Championship. All that evaporated when it reached the final of Euro 2008 and beat Germany. After that, cranky old Coach Luis Aragones walked away to manage Fenerbahce in Turkey. There were mutterings that Aragones, an eccentric and devious motivator, had been the key to Spain’s long-delayed success. But under a new coach, Vicente del Bosque, Spain had cruised to 1-0, 4-0 and 3-0 wins over Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia and Estonia.

The flair is still there. And especially so against a spirited, young side such as Belgium is now. This current Spanish team is a lethal mixture of Latin swagger and old-fashioned European toughness, and looks utterly unbeatable. In world soccer, Spain is the new Brazil. Spain does now what Brazil did for decades –- it enthralls. Just as those who were not soccer fanatics admired Brazil’s joyous use of ball skills, the casual observer today is intrigued and entertained by Spain’s incisive, speedy, short-passing game, and daring creativity. Spain does what both purists and the half-interested expect from soccer -– it sends lightning attacks forward from midfield, playing with a balletic cohesion and confidence that is awe-inspiring.

Spain’s status must be a matter of particular chagrin to its neighbor Portugal. It was Portugal that stunned the soccer world at Euro 2000, all panache and keenness, resolutely determined to score often and in style. The Golden Generation of Portuguese players, built around the immense midfield talent of Luis Figo, never made it to the top, to be Europe’s Brazil. The team never mustered the muscle to accompany the skill and flair. At Euro 2004, World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo defined the them -– gifted, capable of moving like a gazelle, but always ready to throw himself on the ground and claim a foul at the slightest touch.

Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, tied Albania, 0-0-, on Wednesday. (Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)

Spain has the muscle. Always skillful and full of intricate movement, it is simultaneously obdurate and resilient. The defining moment of Spain’s ascendancy was Torres’s winning goal against Germany in the Euro 2008 final. He looks a delicate figure, Torres, and clearly takes delight in his own silky ball skills. But when he raced after that ball, he outmuscled a defender and a goalkeeper to direct the ball into the net. There was sweat as well as swagger in that goal.

And Torres is not alone in combining skill and stubbornness. On Wednesday, Spain beat Belgium in the 88th minute through a glorious move from David Villa, who had been both tireless and creative throughout. Villa expected a cross from Dani Guiza and with sublime appreciation of the space allowed him near the Belgian goal, he darted instantly into position to head it into the net. Then he ran off the field, toward the thrilled Spanish fans who were chanting “Ole! Ole! Ole!” in his honor. When he walked back to the field, he walked like a matador.

The Belgian team and fans looked devastated. But that’s what beauty does -– it breaks hearts. And the beautiful game has moved from Brazil to Spain.

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