David Hirshey will write regularly during the World Cup.
Let me see if I've got this straight.
Spain is the new Brazil (dazzling artists who weave intricate patterns as they scythe through opponents). While we're at it, Argentina is also apparently the new Brazil (24 touches on that third goal against Serbia and Montenegro, which, my neighborhood dominatrix assures me, is a lot of ball play by any S&M standard). Brazil, meanwhile, is the new France (defending champions in search of their trademark ebullience), France is the new Holland (driven by internecine squabbles among its aging stars), Ghana is the new Senegal (the African team that shocks the world with its speed and verve) and, the U.S. is the same ol' U.S. (looking like roadkill, but could still squeeze into the second round with a little help from our Italian friends).
As the World Cup heads into the final round of games before the knockout stage begins, it is tempting to reconfigure the old order based on what we have seen these past two weeks. Tempting, but ultimately futile. Does anyone really believe that Brazil, despite its tepid start, will not find its samba rhythm and play "bew-ti-full" again, as Eric Cantona reminds us hourly in that Nike commercial? Or that Spain, a team that has a history of choking — remember Northern Ireland in '82? — just when they look like they're en fuego, will be in Berlin on July 9?
Certainly, the Spanish fans do. They were dancing in the fountains of Madrid last night, chanting "Campeones, Campeones", happily oblivious to their team's long history of chronic heartbreak. But could you really blame them after yesterday's win made it 24 (wins, not touches) in a row for La Furia Roga and set up a delicious possible second round match with France, who are aging about as well as a piece of two-week-old Gouda. Lest we forget, it was in anticipation of a match against Les Bleus two years ago that Spanish coach Luis Aragones was quoted as calling the great French striker Thierry Henry (and, more important, the talismanic captain of my beloved Arsenal) a "black shit" in a desperate attempt to motivate his players.
But as much as it pains me to admit it, Aragones has certainly pulled all the right strings at this World Cup. The Spaniards' vivisection of the Ukraine in their first game was a masterclass of fluid ball movement and cutting edge finishing, but — given Spain's box office record of opening big, closing quickly — I was not inclined to join the rest of the media in their running of the bulls urgency to proclaim them serious contenders. And for 70 minutes yesterday, I smirked knowingly as the wheels started to come off that bandwagon, and Tunisia held tight to a 1-0 lead and looked for all the world like the new Angola. But Spain has so much talent that it can afford to sit its all-time leading scorer Raul and the teenage prodigy Cesc Fabregas (go, you Gunners!), and no one (ok, maybe Raul) will complain.
Only yesterday, after watching his Ukraine-wreckers David Villa and Luis Garcia prove unable to break down the well-marshaled Tunisian defense, and the specter of past failures all of a sudden hanging in the air, Aragones knew he had to find a way to re-ignite his attack or risk a reprise of Same Old Spain obituaries. On came Raul and Fabregas to link up with Spain's new golden boy Fernando Torres, and Tunisia was rocked back on its heels. First, Raul, the classic goalmouth predator, pounced on the rebound of a Fabregas shot and hammered it into the net. Then Fabregas stabbed a killer ball through the heart of the Tunisian defense for Torres to run onto and finish with cool precision. El Nino (The Kid), as the Spaniards call the big, powerful Torres, was in a torrid mood, and when he was pulled down in the box in stoppage time, he slammed home the penalty with such venom you might have thought he was trying to blow away all of Spain's ghosts. Whether he succeeded or not, it's too soon to tell, but Spain could just be the real deal.