Germans have captured fans' imaginations
Can they shut down Spain's defence?
By JAMES LAWTON, QMI Agency
Germany players celebrate a goal by Arne Friedrich during the quarter-final match against Argentina. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)
CAPE TOWN - Bastian Schweinsteiger did not exactly smash down the door and shout, like a bar-room bully, "bring on Spain," but he is not a young man to equivocate on or off the field. The question was simple enough and so was his answer. If he had the choice of semifinal opponents, he would choose Spain not Paraguay.
"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and that's how a lot of people think of Spain," he said. "They are champions of Europe and they have great players. So if we are to be champions of the world, it would be better to beat the favourites."
It is the most distinguishing mark of this young German side that it is filled with self-belief. Another sign of its achievement here while dismantling England and Argentina is that Schweinsteiger's declaration scarcely raised a single eyebrow.
German football is marching here with a conviction remarkable even by its own extraordinary standards.
So why do some hold doggedly to the instinct that it will be Spain appearing in its first final, as opposed to Germany in its eighth, in Johannesburg's Soccer City on Sunday?
It is because they still believe in the promise Spain made when it won its first major tournament in 44 years by beating Germany in the European Championship in Vienna two years ago.
Germany, it is true, is a different side now. It has new, thoroughbred blood running through its veins. It has the old goal larcenist Miroslav Klose returned to the top of his predatory powers. Yet there is a potentially more important question: is it a different Spain, is it a team fallen back from the deep belief in their own artistry that was crowned by a goal from Fernando Torres.
Some evidence suggests that self-doubt may have grown here over the last few weeks.
Defeat by a near anonymous Swiss team in the opening game asked questions that are still far from resolved, and not least in the quarterfinal struggle against Paraguay. Where, many are asking, would Spain be without the undimmed confidence and optimism of five-goal David Villa? The answer is self evident. It would be back home and asking forlornly what happened to their idea of not just winning the World Cup but making a new statement about the potential of the game to re-state its life and its beauty.
They might have cited the metal fatigue plainly affecting Torres. They might have talked of the heightened expectation which Sir Alex Ferguson offers as the reason for Wayne Rooney's mystifying failure. They might have sighed and mumbled, sadly, that maybe they had run their course too quickly?
Better though, both for Spain and the way this World Cup will always be remembered, for a bonfire to be made of all those questions in Durban on Wednesday.
Better they shrivel up when a team it is still reasonable to believe have greatness within them say to the Germans, "nice try boys, but this is where the wheels fall off your chariot."
For many here such a statement already touches sacrilege. Undoubtedly, Schweinsteiger and his teammates have taken hold of the imagination of the tournament. They have played boldly and with such freedom that it is not easy to dispute the possibility that they have achieved unstoppable momentum.
Yet some crucial questions still have to be asked? How deep will their resources run when they are opposed by the best midfield in the game -- and a defence not likely to break apart as abjectly as those of England and Argentina? Will Scheweinsteiger find his confidence so easy to re-charge when confronted by the likes of Xavi Herdanez and Andres Iniesta, who know that, finally, their reputations as great players have been brought to the line? Will Masut Ozil, the most precocious of significant performers these last few weeks, carry the same influence when Xabi Alonso seeks to set up his most commanding sphere of influence?
These questions, admittedly, depend for their substance on the Spanish ability to move their game up another notch from what we have seen here so far. For Spain, the key almost certainly rests with the ability of Iniesta to find his most surgical form. He showed a flash of it in the quarterfinal and Paraguay, who had fought with impressive tenacity and skill, were destroyed in a moment. No player on earth makes space and time for his teammates quite so sublimely as Iniesta and when he achieved the half-break and rolled the ball into the path of a teammate with the outside of his foot the resulting goal of David Villa was as inevitable as a sunrise.
Maybe that is what it was. Perhaps it was some light shedding on the most beautiful side in this tournament. This, certainly, was how Spain was seen when they arrived here last month.
Yes, some of us were excessively diverted by what we saw as the Mean Yellow Machine of Brazil -- and the life-giving emotion Diego Maradona appeared to be transmitting to his Argentine team, and most notably Lionel Messi.
But when the Brazilian machine fell apart under the investigation of the Dutch and Messi was left in tears by a German team ruthlessly exposing the fact that beneath the Argentine talent there was a terrible frailty, we had a new tournament filled with fresh possibilities.
Yet there was still Spain, still a standard set in the years coming into the tournament -- still a belief that it might not only win but do so in a way that lifted Africa's first World Cup beyond the killing threat of mediocrity.
The Germans, it has to be said, have challenged the idea in the most dramatic way. But have they proved themselves a better team than the one they face tonight, do they have the same power to create unanswerable brilliance when pitted against a proper defence?
It is maybe the last big question of this World Cup and it does not permit an easy answer. However, here, it has to be no.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.