DURBAN, South Africa — They pressured Germany the entire match and peppered its goalkeeper so many times a score seemed inevitable.
Finally, with a mighty swing of his head that sent his long, curly locks flying, Spain’s Carles Puyol got it done.
With the World Cup final in reach – and Queen Sofia cheering from the stands – La Roja came through with their best game yet.
“We’ve shown that in the big moments we can grow even more,” striker David Villa said after Spain’s 1-0 semifinal victory over Germany on Wednesday. “We should have scored more goals, but one from Puyol has put us in the final.”
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Spain will play for the World Cup title for the very first time, thanks to Puyol’s goal on that powerful header in the second half. The game was a repeat, down to the final score, of the 2008 European Championship final when Spain beat Germany to win its first major title in 44 years.
European bragging rights are one thing. Being the world champion is something else.
When the final whistle sounded, the Spanish players on the field thrust their arms in the air while the substitutes raced out to join them. Two teammates grabbed Villa, who has scored all but two of Spain’s goals here, and carried him on their shoulders.
In the stands, Spanish fans partied deep into the night, waving flags, banging on drums and singing chorus after chorus of “Ole! Ole! Ole!”
“This is one of the greatest moments for Spain, for us to be in the final of the World Cup, it’s history,” said Villa, who remains tied with Netherlands playmaker Wesley Sneijder for the tournament scoring lead at five goals apiece. “And we want to make more history in the final.”
Spain faces the Netherlands on Sunday at Soccer City in Johannesburg, ensuring a first-time champion. The Dutch, who beat Uruguay 3-2 on Tuesday night, have lost in their only two trips to the final.
The two teams have never met in the World Cup.
“I am sure the Spanish can win any game,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said, “because they are dominant and it’s hard to contain their attack.”
Making opponents look bad is becoming Spain’s trademark.
Spain has been the best team in Europe – all the world, really – for much of the last four years. It’s lost all of two games since November 2006, one a shocker to Switzerland in the group-stage opener. With all but two members of the starting lineup playing for either Barcelona or Real Madrid, the Spanish play with a seamlessness and fluidity that’s almost intuitive.
“They have been playing together for several years, they are very cohesive, their moves come automatically,” German striker Miroslav Klose said. “They were simply the better team.”
Injuries to Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas kept Spain from showing its full flair and polish in South Africa, leading some to question whether the European champions’ time had passed. Against Germany, however, the Spanish showed they are still very much the team to beat.
After coming oh, so close several times — including on back-to-back plays in the 57th minute — Xavi swung a corner kick right into the scrum in front of German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer in the 73rd. With fellow defender and Barcelona teammate Gerard Pique next to him and screening Neuer’s view, Puyol leaped and got the ball.
He headed it with such power that his long curls whipped across his face. Neuer dived to his left, but had no chance to stop the ball as it thundered into the net.
“We should have intercepted that ball,” Loew said.
Not a chance.
Instead, the Germans could only watch in dismay as the Spanish players gathered for a group hug at the edge of the box, bouncing up and down and rubbing each other’s heads. As the Germans trudged back into position, Lukas Podolski barked at his teammates in frustration.
This wasn’t what the Germans envisioned after overhauling their team following the Euro 2008 loss, bringing in youngsters such as Mesut Oezil, Sami Khedira and goal-scoring machine Thomas Mueller, who was suspended against Spain after picking up a second yellow card in the quarterfinals.
The newcomers infused Germany with a speed and smoothness few other teams could match, and it rolled over old rivals England and Argentina by a combined score of 8-1.
But there’s something about Spain that brings out the worst in the Germans, and they looked as if they were back in Vienna for much of the night.
Those counterattacks that were so devastating against England and Argentina never materialized, and the midfield spacing that had been so impressive was almost nonexistent.
“We can say Germany wasn’t as good as we thought they’d be today,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. “But that is due to the excellent performance of our team.”
The Germans were devastated after the final whistle, with captain Philipp Lahm breaking down in tears and Bastian Schweinsteiger crumbling to his knees.
This was the three-time champions’ third straight trip to the World Cup semifinals. Yet just like in 2006, they are headed for the third-place game.