Spain’s three-week master class in prudent, patient application of effort (a.k.a., playing Spanish possum)

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Admittedly, claiming a major tournament on a thoughtful platform of efficiency and “prudent conservation” isn’t so sexy.

It’s certainly not as alluring or intoxicating as, say, creating history by mercilessly punishing a litany of hapless opposition, by winning through a series of lopsided results.

Spain may reign today, but everyone had hoped for more of that flashy 4-0 flourish along the way. We wanted to be treated to more of the Spanish hammer (as in Sunday’s Kiev kick-around) rather than seeing the champs chisel deliberately away with the precision tools.

But the manner in which Spain just made history really deserves proper recognition. Because the Spanish just stitched together a masterpiece – never mind some unappreciative grumbling along the way about Spain making its case in underwhelming style.

But Vicente del Bosque didn’t bring Spain to Eastern Europe to wow and impress in first-round matches or in some early elimination contest. They came to make grand history, and such high ambition cannot be entrusted to breathless unrestraint.

We may have wanted to be entertained; but Spain simply wanted to win, coveting that unprecedented third major tournament title (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012). So win they did, through patient self-regulation, through the tricky tenets of “doing just enough.”

We talked for three weeks of Spain never achieving the best version of itself, about apparent contentment and the need for blessed discontent, about possibly lacking that final, telling pang of hunger.

But did we have it wrong all along? Was del Bosque (pictured) simply having his men play a little Spanish possum en route to Sunday’s final in Kiev?  We all wondered where the “real” Spain might be hiding. In reality, they just didn’t need to be “full Spain” very often.

source:  They wisely determined just how much of the full Spanish treatment three successful weeks in Poland and Ukraine would require. So they got a lead and then got smart time and again, dropping the energy output a smidge – while the rest of us selfishly shouted “Go, go, go! … Why won’t they go?”

All that passing, passing, passing – the possession for possession’s sake that sometimes looked like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and the rest were cruising down a highway but content to travel at a safer “school zone speed.”

It made us wonder if Spain was vulnerable. In truth, we weren’t giving Spain sufficient credit for thinking this one through.  Italian manager Cesare Prandelli took in ample praise for getting things right against Germany, and deservedly so. But what about that wily ol’ del Bosque, a cunning Spanish fox who got it right in a bigger way.

Let’s not forget, this really is a grueling tournament. The teams Sunday in Kiev were playing their sixth match in 22 days. That’s one contest about every three and a half days – and what a taxing, debilitating slog it is.

Early Sunday the ESPN announcers wondered why del Bosque’s men couldn’t look more like they did in extra time against Portugal, when they leaned in for further offensive push, pinning the Portuguese back with the extra run, the quicker pass, the earlier ball forward and the higher intensity, generally.

But again, perhaps we weren’t giving Spain enough credit for managing the energy level, for always keeping a restrictor plate on this classic car, for doing just enough and leaving plenty in reserve.

Don’t forget, this is a Spanish team that won a World Cup by scoring eight goals (Just eight, in seven matches!), another lesson in patient application of effort. So perhaps trophy acquisition at Euro 2012 by way of wise conservation shouldn’t have been surprising at all.

By the 60th minute Sunday, Italy looked exhausted. Yes, it was unfortunate the Azzurri had to finish with 10 men, but Prandelli’s unit would likely have been similarly pooped with 11.

The Italians, not quite good enough to hold something back and still steer through the elimination rounds, were spent.

Spain, one of the best teams of all time (there can be little argument now) could afford to pace the enterprise a bit. They did so expertly.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Fekir negotiations back on; Chelsea waiting on transfer targets; and more

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Could Liverpool get its star attacking midfield target after all?

That’s what seems to be the case, as the agent for Lyon and France midfielder Nabil Fekir told French TV channel LCI Monday evening that negotiations aren’t over between Liverpool and Lyon.

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“He didn’t sign because um… it is not over! This is not the end of the story,” Fekir’s agent, Jean-Pierre Bernes reportedly said.

It was just two weeks ago when Lyon president Jean-Michael Aulas stated that Fekir, Lyon’s captain, would remain with the club for the upcoming season, after negotiations with Liverpool fell through. According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds wanted a second opinion on a previous knee injury, and had balked at the $70 million price tag.

But now it appears Liverpool and Aulas could still be in conversations to try and find a mutually accepted fee.

At the same time, stirring up transfer drama is in Bernes interest, as it could drive other teams into the race to sign Fekir and raise his transfer fee, meaning more money to him, Fekir (if he gets a cut) and Lyon. Watch this space for more to come during and after the World Cup.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from across the Premier League and Europe:

(more…)

Japan upsets ten-man Colombia in Group H opener

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On paper, the 61st-ranked team in the world beating the 16th-ranked team in the world is a massive upset. But considering the circumstances within the game, perhaps this wasn’t an upset after all.

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Two set pieces were the difference as Japan defeated ten-man Colombia, 2-1 on Tuesday morning in Saransk. Colombia played with ten men for nearly the entire match, after Carlos Sanchez was sent off for a handball in the box and a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.

The game took a massive turn in the third minute, as Colombia centerback Davinson Sanchez failed to control a pass and Yuya Osako found himself free on goal. His shot was parried away by Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina but Kagawa’s rebound shot was clearly blocked by Sanchez’s right arm. The referee, Damir Skomina immediately pointed to the penalty spot and went to the back pocket, sending Sanchez to the showers.

Kagawa stepped up and cooly sent Ospina the wrong way to put Japan on top.

Late in the first half, after both teams had chances on target, Colombia came back and evened the scoreline.

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Juan Fernando Quintero, starting in place of the recovering James Rodriguez, smartly took a free kick and fired it low, under the wall as it jumped. Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima reacted late and although he arrived as the ball was crossing the line, he couldn’t keep it from going over, tying the game in the 39th minute.

Ultimately, despite its efforts, Colombia began to tire and on a corner kick, the Blue Samurai took back the lead and control of their destiny in Group H. A corner kick from Keisuke Honda was re-directed past Ospina by Osako, who jumped well over Santiago Arias, to give Japan a 2-1 lead in the 75th minute.

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Rodriguez was introduced in the 57th minute but try as he did, Colombia was unable to find the final pass in the box, and Japan held on for the unexpected victory.

With the win, Japan top Group H ahead of a meeting with Senegal, while Colombia will have to regroup to face Poland.

In a World Cup full of unexpected results, Tuesday brought yet another memorable win for an underdog.

New Zealand women footballers rebel against national coach

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Wellington, New Zealand (AP) Only weeks after New Zealand Football made headlines by signing a revolutionary equal pay deal with its female players, the organization is facing a mutiny by members of its women’s team against the national coach.

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New Zealand Football confirmed on Tuesday it had received a letter signed by a number of New Zealand players complaining about the methods and tactics employed by Austria-born coach Andreas Heraf.

The complaints follow the New Zealand team’s recent 3-1 loss at home to Japan. Heraf angered his players, and fans of the Football Ferns national team, by taking an entirely defensive game plan into the rare home international.

Heraf then further angered his players with comments defending his approach.

He said there was “a big difference in quality” between the New Zealand and Japanese players and that New Zealand “will never have that quality” to compete with top teams like Japan. He said the scoreline might have been 8-0 if New Zealand had not adopted a defensive approach.

One of New Zealand’s leading players, United States-based Abby Erceg, retired after playing 132 matches for New Zealand, citing Heraf’s approach in previous international matches.

She later told New Zealand media: “I couldn’t stand to wear that (national symbol) on my chest any more when his vision was to cower in a corner and not get beat by too much.”

New Zealand Football defended Heraf against the media and public criticism but admitted his comments were “strange” and “wrong” and did not accurately reflect his views. Heraf later apologized and said he had not expressed himself clearly.

But efforts to dampen the controversy have failed. New Zealand Football said in a statement it had “received a letter from the NZ Professional Footballers Association (NZPFA) last night with a number of complaints from the players of the Football Ferns.”

The mutiny comes only weeks after New Zealand gained international headlines for a deal which gives female pay parity with their male counterparts.

New Zealand Football signed the deal which provided female players with equal match payments, travel arrangements and prize money.

At the time, New Zealand women’s captain Ali Riley said the deal meant New Zealand would “be able to compete against the top teams, to be able to do well at a World Cup and the Olympics – this is what we needed.”

VIDEO: Colombia sees red, Japan takes early lead

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The first red card of the World Cup came just moments after fans took their seats in Saransk.

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After David Ospina blocked a breakaway opportunity from Yuya Osako in the third minute of the match, Japan star and former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa fired the rebound on goal. But his shot was blocked by the arm of Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez, which earned him a straight red card from referee Damir Skomina and an early trip to the locker room.

Kagawa then stepped up to the spot and calmly sent Ospina the wrong way to give Japan the shock early lead.

Colombia will play the rest of the match with ten men and no James Rodriguez, who was named to the bench for this match as he recovers from a reported calf injury.