In the end, the best team won. Spain have been the best side in the world for at least the last two years since winning Euro 2008, and won the first World Cup in their history last night thanks to Andres Iniesta’s strike late in injury time. However the match will not be remembered as a scintillating battle between two of the great footballing nations and philosophies, nor will Spain be mentioned in the same breath as the truly great attacking sides. This was a scrappy, bad-tempered final that seemed destined for penalties until Iniesta struck.
This fourth consecutive 1-0 win means this Spanish team of Iniesta, Xavi, Villa et al win the World Cup with a record number of goals scored – their final tally of 8 the lowest of any World Cup winning side in history. This was not what was expected from the team that beat Poland 6-0 in their final group game with a marvellous David Silva goal. All of Spain’s games followed a similar pattern: tasked with breaking down compact defences, failing to do so, starting to look nervous before making a breakthrough at which point they become the best side in the world, because you can’t score against them if they won’t give you the ball.
Last night’s final was little different and will linger in the memory only for an unpleasant atmosphere ill-befitting of a World Cup final. Throughout the tournament the Netherlands had shown that they had replaced a little of their traditional style with dogged physical presence but they took it to extremes here. Sneijder, Robben and van Persie were peripheral figures as the team’s hardmen, lead by Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, set about disrupting Spain’s passing game by foul means.
Howard Webb showed 14 yellow cards over the course of the game, also a World Cup final record, and the tone was rather set after he had booked 4 players in the opening quarter of the match. By then Spain might have been ahead, Stekelenberg reacting sharply to parry away a Sergio Ramos header, and Sneijder drew a routine save from Casillas up the other end, a 40-yard free kick that the keeper held easil enough. But if Webb thought that by making examples of a few tackles early on he would calm the game down, he was wrong.
Nigel De Jong might have seen a straight red card for a 28th-minute challenge on Xabi Alonso that saw him karate kick the Real Madrid midfielder high in the chest. Webb let him off with a yellow but a challenge which appeared upleasant to the naked eye was scandalous in slow-motion, and Webb had got his first contentious decision wrong.
The first half rather petered out into a mess of fouls, reminiscent not of Total Voetbal versus Tiki-taka so much as Bolton v Arsenal; one team passing it around beautifully but not doing much in the final third, another getting a foot on the ball when possible, leaving the foot in when not. Holland had their first decent spell of possession in the dying moments of the half, Arjen Robben’s shot saved by Casillas low at his near post.
Spain had a great chance soon after the restart but Carles Puyol was unable to make the most of his free header from a corner kick, glancing a header downwards into the path of an unsuspecting Joan Capdevila who miskicked with the goal at his mercy. Vicente del Bosque was the first coach to blink, replacing the ineffective Pedro with Jesus Navas, the winger who adds a bit of dynamism and intent to Spain’s play down the right flank.
Shortly after the hour mark Holland had the best chance of the match, Sneijder finally able to put his mark on the game with a defence-splitting through ball that sent the pacey Robben sprinting clear on goal. The Bayern Munich winger waited in vain for Casillas to go to ground but Spain’s keeper stayed on his feet until the last moment, parrying Robben’s eventual low shot with his right boot. Robben knew he had just missed the chance of the match, and one his side’s display barely deserved.
Ten minutes later Spain had a great chance of their own, Navas’s low cross going through the legs of Johnny Heitinga, booked minutes earlier for a foul on Villa. The ball fell to the new Barcelona striker but Heitinga recovered well to block.
Bert Van Marwijk made a positive change, replacing the eternal industry of Dirk Kuyt with a pacy attacking threat, Eljero Elia. But Spain began to turn the screw, keen to avoid the penalty shootout that the Netherlands had clearly come to play for. Xavi and Iniesta combined with typical beauty, Iniesta’s shot blocked at the near post. Then Sergio Ramos was presented with a free header at a corner but inexplicably headed over. Iniesta struck again after combining with Alonso on the left flank, Heitinga recovering after the Barcelona midfielder took one touch too many. Holland got a foot to the ball and hoofed it clear, but there wasn’t an orange shirt to be seen and Spain came forward yet again.
Again, Robben had a chance to steal it, easily beating Puyol for pace and taking aim from the edge of the area. Puyol appeared to have his hands around Robben but for the first time in his life the Dutchman stayed on his feet. He was momentarily off balance and Casillas was out smartly to smother the ball. A remonstrating Robben was duly booked for dissent.
Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas has spent this World Cup getting a feel for what it is like to spend your life sitting on the bench watching Xavi and Iniesta stroke it about, fine preparation for his supposed impending move to Barcelona, but finally got some time on the pitch, replacing Xabi Alonso three minutes before the end of normal time. He played Alonso’s deep-lying role when Holland had the ball but charged forward when Spain were in possession. But the last chance of normal time fell to Wesley Sneijder, who ensured the Netherlands didn’t commit too many players forward by shooting hopelessly wide and short from the half way line as orange shirts broke in numbers.
Extra time had seemed inevitable from the first five minutes, and so it proved. Fabregas had the first chance, clear on goal but a strike from his less favoured left foot was an easy save for Stekelenberg. Iniesta wasted options either side of him and was crowded out as he went to shoot. Jesus Navas briefly had half the crowd in raptures but his deflected shot had struck the side-netting.
Though it seemed impossible the Dutch had retreated even further into their defensive shells. The gameplan was simple and far removed from Total Football: don’t concede, and anything else is a bonus. Finally their cynicism got its due reward after 19 minutes of extra time, Heitinga picking up a second yellow for pulling Iniesta back on the edge of the area. Robben should have gone minutes later for putting the ball in the net long after the whistle had gone for offside, Webb kindly, but incorrectly letting him off with a final warning.
An estimated 700m viewers worldwide were getting themselves comfortable for penalties when finally Spain struck. Fernando Torres sent over a weak cross but the ball fell to Fabregas. The Arsenal captain rolled the ball square to Iniesta whose sublime first touch gave him plenty of time to pick his spot. He lashed the ball across Stekelenberg who got a hand to it but could not save a goal that Spain, in the context of Holland’s tactics, richly deserved.
So Spain become World Cup champions for the first time in their history, and while they may not have done so in the thrilling style their form over the last two years had suggested, they deserve a vast amount of credit for sticking to their style in the face of highly physical opposition. Every single side they have faced has set up to defend and, that opening match aberration against Switzerland aside, they have broken through. In defence they have had little to do but have been resolute when required. Their midfield is unrivalled. Any side with David Villa in attack is going to prosper, and Fernando Torres likely woke this morning, realised how it feels to win without playing well and without expectations resting solely on your shoulders, and asked himself why he should bother going back to Liverpool.
Holland have lost a third World Cup final but their 2010 side will not be so fondly remembered as the thrilling teams that lost the 1974 and 1978 finals. Had their negative tactics prospered it would have been the most undeserving of wins. Predictably Webb has been the focus of much ire in the Dutch press this morning but he was given no choice by most of what was put in front of him. That the Netherlands threw their attacking instincts out of the window in an attempt to foul Spain out of a first World Cup says much about Bert Van Marwijk’s instincts. However it says an awful lot more about a Spanish team who, at their best, give you little alternative.