Maybe things have changed since 2010, but as I recall the neighbourhood surrounding Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium wasn’t the best.
Four years ago, I was a reporter for CBC on assignment in South Africa at the FIFA World Cup, and I can remember being somewhat concerned for my safety as my colleagues and I drove through the dodgy Doornfontein area in the centre of the city on our way to Ellis Park, site of the Spain-Paraguay quarterfinal.
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About a block away from the venue, on one very scary looking street corner, local drug dealers did a brisk trade, while prostitutes were out in full force looking to drum up business. The oily stench from the KFC down the street was sickening. There were apartment buildings and houses nearby, but even though it was a sunny day, few of the local residents were out milling about. It was a ghost town. It was eerie.
Ellis Park, though, was a beautiful stadium. Used for both rugby and soccer, it boasts fantastic sight lines and stands that are so close to the sidelines that spectators feel as though they are top of the players.
It was at this most majestic and regal of sports theatres that Spain’s push to winning the World Cup really took flight. La Roja overcame an opening loss to Switzerland to win their group, and then duly dispatched Portugal in the Round of 16 in Cape Town. It was all very routine up until that point for the Spaniards—even in the Swiss setback, they dominated possession and were unlucky not to get a result.
Paraguay, though, proved a very tough nut to crack. The South Americans clogged the middle of the field with bodies, giving Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso very little time on the ball. Spain was getting frustrated and when Gerard Pique yanked down Oscar Cardozo inside the penalty area in the 57th minute, the European champions appeared to have imploded. Iker Casillas turned away Cardozo’s shot, though, and Spain had new life.
Slowly, Spain turned the screw, putting more and more pressure on Paraguay. And then it happened. With seven minutes left in regulation, the ball fell to the furious feet of Iniesta, who went on a penetrating run and dribbled through two Paraguay defenders before passing the ball off with the outside of his foot to a streaking Pedro. Pedro's blast hit the post, but David Villa was there for the rebound, and he cracked a shot that went off both posts and in. A moment of pure genius—a gorgeous sweeping move fuelled by equal parts speed, technical skill and vision—settled the game. Spain never looked back after that, and Germany (in Durban) and Holland (back in Johannesburg) were defeated, and the World Cup was won.
I was lucky enough to cover Spain’s last three games of the tournament, including the World Cup final. I went to their training sessions, attended press conferences with Vincente del Bosque, and talked to players in the mixed zone after the game. I had a great view of Carles Puyol’s bullet header that sunk the Germans in the semis, and I was sitting in the press zone in the corner of Soccer City Stadium that Iniesta ran to after scoring the extra-time winner against the Dutch in the final. All great moments.
But what really stood out, the moment I’ll never forget, occurred outside of Ellis Park the afternoon after the Paraguay win. The same street that was empty the day before was now filled with the sound of children playing a pickup game of soccer. Several wearing Spanish jerseys with the names “Alonso,” and “Xavi” and “Iniesta” emblazoned on the back were engaged in a lively contest, and at one point they took to recreating the winning goal from the night before. The kids never did get it right—hard to do when using jackets for goal posts—but when one kid went on a mazy run before driving a shot past one of his mate’s playing goal, all them stopped and instantly screamed out “David Villa! David Villa! David Villa.”
That moment—those kids emulating their Spanish idols on that street in Johannesburg—embodied the true greatness of the Spain team that dominated international soccer for a six-year period. It wasn’t the World Cup win. It wasn’t the two European championships. It wasn’t the many victories, the long winning streaks, the unprecedented success, or the countless months spent atop the FIFA world rankings.
It was the way they did it, and how with great style, beauty and grace on the pitch they not only entertained but in most cases inspired those who watched them.
Does Spain’s early exit from the 2014 World Cup mark the end of an era? Only if you look at it in strictly conventional terms. Sure, they’re no longer the best team on the planet. But their legacy lives on—it lives in kids playing pickup games all over the world and in the next generation of would-be soccer stars coming through the professional ranks who want to play "the Spain way."
La Roja have given us so much over the last six years. They won’t be soon forgotten. Nor should they.
John Molinaro is Sportsnet’s chief soccer reporter. Follow him on Twitter.