As the sun sets on Africa’s first World Cup, the sun is rising on Spain’s first tenure as World Champions.
Andres Iniesta secured Spain’s victory, scoring the only goal of the game in a 1-0 extra time win over the Netherlands, and the Spanish following up their 2008 European Championship success by winning the greatest prize of all.
Soccer City, Johannesburg was enveloped in a sea of orange and red, as fans from the Netherlands and Spain eagerly anticipated a first World Cup win for one nation. Unfortunately for the Dutch, for the third time in their history, they had to settle for runners-up medals.
Fortunately for football, the trophy was in Spanish hands.
From the day Spain began their World Cup campaign, albeit in a surprise defeat to Switzerland, they played the way football should be played. They were patient, and carefully kept hold of the ball until they saw an opportunity to try and score. Nothing was rushed or desperate, and their control and movement is second to none.
However, it was the game with the Netherlands when the world really began to appreciate Spain’s talents.
From start to finish, Spain played the game the right way. Sadly, the same could not be said for the Netherlands.
The Dutch side, historically known for “Total Football”, set about stifling Spanish flair, and largely succeeded. It was an effective game plan, and worked for the majority of the two hours of football. However, while no team should be criticised for playing the game in the way that gives them their best chance of success, the way the tactics were implemented was dangerous and almost indefensible.
Howard Webb was the referee chosen to take charge of football’s greatest spectacle, and it soon became evident that the honour bestowed upon him was quickly to become a difficult evening.
Webb became the owner of unwanted record as he handed out the greatest number of cards in a World Cup final, beating the previous record of six by a huge margin. The Englishman gave out a total of 13 yellow cards, including two that led to a red, but he was left with very little choice.
Nearly all the cards were warranted, and some of the yellows were perhaps considered to be lenient. As Spain approached the game in their usual delicate, careful, manner, the Dutch were anything but.
Uncharacteristically aggressive, Netherlands were tough, stubborn, and at times, brutal.
They fully deserved every one of the nine yellow cards they received, and were incredibly lucky to end the game with ten men on the pitch. Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong were central to their aggressive play, and both men were fortunate to see half an hour of football, let alone the entire match.
The Netherlands appeared more interested in stopping Spain's play by whatever means, than playing themselves, and van Bommel’s persistent fouling was central to this. De Jong meanwhile, was less persistent, but much more reckless. He was incredibly fortunate to only see yellow for a chest-high, studs-up, karate kick on Xabi Alonso.
In stark contrast, Spain refused to be drawn into the battle Netherlands seemed intent on creating. They saw five yellow cards, but only three were for fouls, and at least one of those seemed harsh.
Spain continued to play football their way, and should be heavily praised for this. Xavi and Iniesta were as controlled as ever, and played in the same manner they do together at Barcelona. Both Alonso and Sergio Busquets were equally good in possession, as the Spanish looked to play football that would beat the Dutch.
They refused to be drawn into a scrap, and with the exception of Sergio Busquets, who spent most of the night complaining to Webb, and the odd imaginary card being waved, they behaved in a commendable way — particularly considering the brutal treatment they experienced.
In the end, Spain’s style of football paid dividends. Firstly, when Johnny Heitinga pulled down Iniesta to prevent him a goal-scoring opportunity, earning himself a red card in the process, and secondly, when Iniesta was able to slam home the winning goal.
They showed the right attitude from start to finish, and played football the way it should be played for the whole match. Their refusal to carry out reprisals against those who had battered them consistently for two hours was admirable, and they kept their cool despite the brutal treatment the Dutch handed out to them.
Spain were the better team, and they are worthy champions. It is refreshing to see a team who play such good football enjoy so much success, and long may it continue.
Spain played the “beautiful game” in exactly that fashion. Having seen what the Netherlands had to offer in the World Cup final, it only made a Spanish win more important for football.
On a different note, Iniesta’s celebration included a tribute to the late Espanyol captain, Dani Jarque, who died last August. Sergio Ramos and Jesus Navas also celebrated by paying tribute to former teammate Antonio Puerta, who passed away in 2007.
The two tributes were truly touching, and at a moment when the team was so caught up in the emotions of winning, it says something about the team that their players were so desperate to leave a lasting tribute to Jarque and Puerta.
Back to football now, and perhaps the Spanish win will change some teams’ mindsets in the future. Watching a team succeed without physically imposing themselves upon an opponent is refreshing, and Spain can play any team off the park.
They are one of the most talented teams in the game’s history, and are worthy winners of the most prestigious trophy in football. They should only be congratulated for their conduct and professionalism throughout the tournament; it has been a pleasure to watch.
If only all teams could play like Spain, then we really would see “beautiful football” every week.
Congratulations Spain. World Champions at last.