It fell to Andres Iniesta to rescue the World Cup from the Dutch last night. And after 120 minutes, 14 bookings, one red card and a near betrayal by Bert van Marwijk's team of their country's football culture, the World Cup needed rescuing.
Spain wake up this morning as the champions of the world. They had already had the red shirts made up with the new star above the old crest and they wore them to collect the old gold statue as the time ticked towards midnight in Johannesburg. Champions of Europe, now the world, Spain are the team of this generation, comparable to the great winners across time. A great team was crowned last night, but it was not a great game.
The Netherlands admitted to their own limitations with an approach in which they were prepared to do whatever it took to stop Vicente del Bosque's team's fluent passing rhythms. As the card count climbed higher – the game finished with a total of 14 yellow cards – the Dutch were prepared to sacrifice everything and it was a marvel that Johnny Heitinga, the Everton defender, was the only man dismissed.
At the final whistle, the Dutch players surrounded the referee, Howard Webb who had, in the circumstances, discharged his duty well. They seemed to be complaining that the substitute Eljero Elia deserved a penalty when Webb waved play on late in extra time. He was outside the area. They lost their tempers with the referee after Iniesta's goal, claiming offside. He was onside by yards.
If the Netherlands team of the 1970s had deserved to win one of those two finals they contested, by that same standard there will be no tears shed that their 2010 successors were consigned to defeat last night. Taking on Spain at their own brilliant passing game is an intimidating task for any side, however accomplished, but there was nothing much to admire in the way the Dutch reinvented the cruel art of the judicious foul.
Eventually the World Cup was prised away from them with a goal made on football's Elysian fields of Catalonia, where brilliant players seem to walk out of the Barcelona academy as a matter of course. The Arsenal captain, Cesc Fabregas, slipped the ball through to his fellow Barcelona graduate Iniesta and he took one touch before beating the impressive young Ajax goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
As Iniesta went to celebrate he took off his shirt to reveal a tribute to the late Espanyol captain Dani Jarque, who died of a heart attack last year at the age of 26. For Barcelona, Espanyol are the poor relations of Catalonia, but last night there was none of those old division. The Catalan flag joined the Spanish Rojigualda on the pitch. For his part, Iniesta was booked for removing his shirt.
The Dutch went complaining to the end with Van Marwijk claiming that Carles Puyol should have been sent off for a foul on Arjen Robben that would have been the defender's second yellow. The Dutch manager did not care to dwell on the fact that Nigel de Jong could count himself extremely fortunate for not being sent off on 27 minutes for planting his boot into the chest of Xabi Alonso.
It was a nightmare of a game to referee, a bad-tempered, stop-start mess with crafty fouls and interfering benches. Even that man of peace Nelson Mandela, who made a brief pre-match appearance on the pitch, may well have struggled to see the good in it at times. But you could not help but feel for all the Dutch objections that some kind of natural order had finally imposed itself on the chaos with Iniesta's goal.
The Spanish had 57 per cent of the possession and by the end they also had the moral high ground. The Dutch had their moments, most notably two one-on-one encounters between Arjen Robben and Iker Casillas, and on both occasions it was the Spanish goalkeeper who stared down his former Real Madrid team-mate and came out with the ball.
Van Marwijk said later that the manner in which the Spanish had voiced their fears before the match about the potential for Webb to be lenient on the likes of Mark van Bommel and De Jong had put pressure on the English referee. But you did not have to be English or even a qualified referee to recognise the approach the Dutch were taking. Robin van Persie went first, booked for felling Joan Capdevila in the 15th minute.
Del Bosque had left out Fernando Torres and the striker's response was unusual. First he spent 10 minutes on the touchline watching the pre-match warm-up rather than participating. When he finally did get on in the second period of extra time he pulled up sharp with what looked like a bad hamstring or the like – the first piece of bad news for Liverpool's new manager, Roy Hodgson.
There were chances for Spain – a header in the fourth minute from Sergio Ramos – but nothing compared to the two that fell Robben's way in the second half. The first time Casillas dived the wrong way but saved with his foot. With seven minutes of normal time left Robben failed again as Puyol snapped at his heels.
Before Fabregas made the winner for Iniesta he too had been given the chance to run on the Dutch goal and, normally so reliable in those positions, had his shot saved by Stekelenburg. Even with 10 men after Heitinga had brought down Iniesta, the Netherlands looked like they might take this final to penalties. Webb made a mistake not giving the Dutch a corner from a deflected free-kick. By then he must have been exhausted.
As penalties loomed, Iniesta at last intervened to save Spain from the indignity of penalties. You would have backed Spain to hold their nerve from the spot, but the Netherlands had not earned the right to take them that far.
Netherlands (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg (Ajax); Van der Wiel (Ajax), Heitinga (Everton), Mathijsen (Hamburg), Van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord); Van Bommel (Bayern Munich), De Jong (Manchester City); Robben (Bayern Munich), Sneijder (Internazionale), Kuyt (Liverpool); Van Persie (Arsenal); Substitutes used: Elia (Hamburg) for Kuyt, 70; Van de Vaart (Real Madrid) for De Jong, 100; Braafheid (Celtic) for Van Bronckhorst, 105.
Spain (4-2-3-1): Casillas (Real Madrid); Ramos (Real Madrid), Pique (Barcelona), Puyol (Barcelona), Capdevila (Villarreal); Busquets (Barcelona), Alonso (Real Madrid); Iniesta (Barcelona), Xavi (Barcelona), Pedro (Barcelona); Villa (Barcelona); Substitutes used: Navas (Seville) for Pedro, 59; Fabregas (Arsenal) for Alonso, 87; Torres (Liverpool) for Villa, 105.
Referee: H Webb (England).
Booked: Netherlands Van der Wiel, Van Persie, Van Bommel, De Jong, Van Bronckhorst, Heitinga (2), Robben, Mathijsen; Spain Puyol, Ramos, Capdevila, Iniesta, Xavi. Sent off Heitinga (110).
Man of the match Iniesta.
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