Casillas is Spain's most valuable player
JOHANNESBURG -- Andres Iniesta will get most of the headlines from this World Cup final for scoring the game-winning goal. But without some heavy lifting from goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the Spanish midfielder's heroics would have never come to pass.
Iniesta took a feed from substitute Cesc Fabregas with just four minutes of extra time remaining and hammered his shot past Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg to give Spain a 1-0 victory and its first World Cup title.
It was a match that was not an advertisement for the beautiful game. Referee Howard Webb dished out 14 yellow cards, more than doubling the record for a final set in 1986. Two of those went to Dutch defender John Heitinga, who in the 109th minute became the fifth player to be sent off in a World Cup final. And Nigel De Jong received a yellow for implanting his studs into Xabi Alonso's chest, an infraction that should have earned the Dutch hitman a straight red card.
In between numerous stoppages for fouls, cautions and injuries, chances were scarce. Stekelenberg denied Sergio Ramos' fifth-minute header with a superb save. But with both midfields canceling out their opponents, there was little in the way of attacking rhythm. Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets was outstanding in keeping Oranje midfielder Wesley Sneijder quiet, while the Dutch duo of Mark Van Bommel and De Jong was equally effective in keeping Spain's dynamic midfield at bay for long stretches.
As the game progressed, a familiar pattern emerged. Spain's repeated attacks down the middle fell upon the rocks that were the Dutch defense, while Netherlands tried to exploit the speed of Arjen Robben on the counterattack.
While this resulted in more possession for Spain, it was the Oranje who created the better chances. Twice in the second half Robben was released on clear breakaways, but Casillas came to his team's rescue both times. In the 62nd minute, the Real Madrid keeper denied Robben with a superb foot save. The second saw Robben attempt to round Casillas, who timed his challenge perfectly to snag the ball off the Dutch attacker's foot.
Not to be outdone, Stekelenberg produced a fine foot save of his own to deny Fabregas five minutes into extra time. But once Heitinga was given his marching orders 14 minutes later, the Dutch were reduced to defending in numbers and hoping for penalties.
It wasn't to be. Dutch substitute Rafael Van der Vaart could only clear Fernando Torres' hopeful cross as far as Fabregas, who played Iniesta through to slot home the game-winner. The Oranje appealed in vain for offside, but replays showed it was the correct call.
When the final whistle blew, Casillas could no longer hold back his tears. He was then mobbed by his teammates, and with good reason, as Spain has been indebted to Casillas throughout the tournament's knockout stages. In the quarterfinal against Paraguay he saved a penalty and produced a fabulous double-save late in the match to preserve a 1-0 victory. In the semifinal against Germany, Casillas batted away Toni Kroos' second-half volley, setting the stage for Carles Puyol to nod home the game-winner.
Casillas, who endured an up-and-down season with Real Madrid, outdid himself in the final. Spain scored just eight goals, a record low for a champion, while conceding only two. It was fitting, then, that he was the first to hoist the FIFA World Cup trophy. Given the way he carried his team at times during this tournament, he deserved the moment in the spotlight.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.