It is a truth universally acknowledged that good guys finish last.
But in the World Cup soccer final just concluded Sunday in South Africa, the good guys (Spain) came out on top and the bad guys (the Netherlands) lost -- and they lost badly, by playing "the beautiful game" dirty.
The final didn't start out as a morality play. On the field, Spain, favored to win but not heavily so, began to play its usual elegant and patient game of passing and staying in possession of the ball. The Netherlands, with its formidable scorers Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, could have made it a close match.
But when, in what seemed a team decision, the Dutch turned thuggish and began fouling, and fouling spectacularly, they turned themselves into the villains of the piece and, by default, they cast Spain as the good guys. Spain committed its own fouls, to be sure, but in contrast to the vicious ones of the Dutch -- the most egregious coming early in the game, when Nigel de Jong planted his cleats in the chest of Xabi Alonso -- Spain's fouls looked like rightful self-defense, an impression reinforced the more frequently de Jong's cleated foul was replayed in slow-motion.
Ascension came in the 117th minute of a 120-minute overtime game, til then a non-scoring, nil-nil slugfest, when Andres Iniesta, reputed the epitome of the good guy, received a bouncing ball and, with exquisite poise, found the proper angle from which to fire the notoriously unpredictable Jabulani where the Dutch goalkeeper wasn't. Goalllll!!! In reaction, and as benediction, Iniesta pulled off his jersey to reveal... an homage to a dead teammate. Were my eyes deceiving me, or was that a halo encircling the Spaniard's head?
By contrast, members of the Dutch team, by then the game's meanies, were seen at the final whistle, along with their coach, arguing vehemently with the referees, trying to paint lipstick on a pig of their own making. And some, again including their coach, were seen removing their second-place blue ribbons upon walking off the awards platform -- bad form, very. In plain view, a "We was robbed" attitude -- misplaced -- was taking root.
In the immediate aftermath, the more critical among the Dutch tried to block that reality-defying attitude. Ruud Gullit, former star of the Dutch national team and a talking head in this World Cup, declared that the game for him was "a torture" (he looked it) and flatly stated that "the Dutch can blame no-one but themselves." And now the grand old man of Dutch soccer, Johan Cruyff, who (in a twist) went on to coach F.C. Barcelona where he was credited with inculcating Spain's beautiful style of play, admonishes his native countrymen for their "ugly, vulgar, hardly eye-catching style," concluding it was "anti-football."
For me though, more powerful than the bad form of the Dutch is the final image of the team from Spain -- the good guys and, it can be said, the artists of the tournament -- up on the podium, with goalkeeper Iker Cassilas kissing the Cup and hoisting it above his head, with the rest of the team pumping their fists in joy, a tableau worthy of Leonardo da Vinci in, say, "The Last Supper," or less Biblical, Delacroix' "Liberty Leading the People," or, to keep it Spanish, a masterpiece by Velazquez.
O.K., maybe I'm overdoing it, as only a new devotee of the game might. But, at a time when the anti-hero still generally holds sway -- with Wall Street's unethical types remaining largely unreformed and the media hyping its latest bad boy, the so-called "Barefoot Bandit," to cite two examples -- it is such a pleasure, and such a relief, when the good guy -- a whole team of them -- beats the bad.
If only for a few days, Justice scores!
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is at work on a play titled "Prodigal" and authored "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks." Her book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," a collection of op-eds, essays, and dialogues, is now out (www.carlaseaquist.com).