The European champions, who have mostly known frustration in international soccer over the last half-century, beat Paraguay 1-0 Saturday to advance to the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1950.
The game’s only goal wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it got the job done, with David Villa ricocheting in a rebound off the right post. Villa had the ball only because a shot from second-half substitute Pedro had bounced off the left post.
Whether or not all will prove to be a good thing is open to debate since Spain now finds powerful Germany waiting for them in the semifinals. Germany dismantled Argentina 4-0 in its quarterfinal Saturday and has won its two elimination-round matches by a combined 8-1.
But Spain will deal with that later. For the time being they’ll focus on their own victory, one that eliminated a gutty Paraguayan team that scored few goals at this tournament but gave up even fewer.
And the win didn’t come without some drama, including a pair of penalty kicks -- one for each team -- just a minute apart early in the second half.
Yet neither one resulted in a goal.
The first came after Spain’s Gerard Pique grabbed the arm of Paraguay’s Oscar Cardozo with both hands, pulling him to the ground in the penalty area. Cardozo took the kick, but after a long pause to gather himself, he was foiled when Spanish keeper Iker Casillas guessed correctly, diving to his left and right into the path of Cardozo’s shot.
Spain then pushed the ball up the field and got its own chance at a penalty kick -- two chances actually -- after Paraguay’s Antolin Alcaraz knocked Villa down from behind in the area. Xabi Alonso took the shot for Spain, nailing the back of the net on his first try. But a teammate had moved into the box too early and Guatemala referee Carlos Batres waved off the goal, sending the Real Madrid midfielder back to the mark to try again.
This time Paraguayan keeper Justo Villar, who plays for the Spanish club Valladolid, made the diving save, extending his scoreless-minutes streak to 386, dating to his team’s World Cup opener last month.
The streak lasted just 24 more minutes until Villa finally scored his fifth goal in as many matches. Villa’s shot wasn’t a good one, but it was a lucky one. Aiming at an open net, he pushed the ball wide but it found a good angle coming off the post, sliding across the goal and into the net at the far side.
Paraguay nearly tied the score five minutes later, but Casillas came up big on shots by Lucas Barrios and Roque Santa Cruz.
So although the win was far from convincing, Spain will take it since it’s the nation’s first-ever victory in a World Cup quarterfinal. When it reached the semifinals 60 years ago, the tournament featured just 16 teams and only two rounds. Still, that was the country’s high-water mark until this summer. La Roja reached the quarterfinals four times since 1986, losing each time.
Yet even that mediocre record looked stellar compared with what Spain had achieved in the European Championships. Prior to winning the last edition of that tournament in 2008, Spain had failed to qualify four times and went out in the first round on three other occasions.
About the only thing this Spanish team has in common with those of years past is the color of the uniform. Before losing to the U.S. in last summer’s Confederations Cup, Spain had gone 35 consecutive matches without a loss, rising to the top spot in FIFA’s world rankings. After that loss, they rolled through the rest of their World Cup qualifying matches unbeaten.
And after being tripped up by Switzerland in their opener in South Africa, Spain beat its next three opponents by a combined 6-1 to reach the quarterfinals.
If Spain came into Saturday’s match riding high, Paraguayan Coach Gerardo Martino obviously felt his club was barely hanging on because the lineup he sent out against Spain had six changes from the one he used in the second-round penalty-shootout win over Japan.
Paraguay, after all, was trying to make some history of its own. It has never played in a World Cup semifinal -- in fact, Saturday’s match was its first in the quarterfinals and its fifth beyond the group stage.
That it came against Spain was unfortunate: Paraguay has been eliminated -- and shut out -- by a European team each time it has reached the knockout stages of a World Cup.
So gone were all three regular strikers, with Nelson Valdez and Cardozo replacing them up front for Martino, who dumped his 4-3-3 alignment in favor a 4-4-2.
And the change in strategy appeared to be working in the first half, with the energetic Paraguayans, let by Valdez, keeping the pressure on the Spanish defense. Valdez eventually found the back of the net in the 41st minute, but the goal was waved off because Cardozo was slightly offside.
Valdez had another opportunity in first-half stoppage time, but after a long run his right-footed shot from about 25 yards was well wide of the target.
After some adjustments at the intermission, the second half was a different story, with Spain controlling most of the action. Yet it had nothing to show for it until Villa’s goal.
Paraguay, meanwhile, never did solve Casillas, being shut out for the third time in as many games. It did not score in its final 305 minutes in this World Cup.
-- Kevin Baxter in Johannesburg, South Africa