Spain must wait for place in pantheon
"Congratulations Spain" read the legend on the pitchside advertising boards. And they will enter the record books as a new name on the World Cup trophy. They have been comfortably the best team in this tournament, yet their freshly-won status came after an elongated match which if it had not been a World Cup final would be one to erase from the memory.
A bad final can often jaundice a decent tournament. The jury remained out on South Africa 2010 and it was hoped a closing classic would set the seal on a finals that has had its moments yet not delivered the stone classic to cement a glowing reputation. Shame on both teams then for deciding this would be a pitched battle, and a successor to the finals of 1990 and 1994, rather than the goalfests of yore that seemingly ended with 1986's thriller. The Dutch should be remembered as the ugliest brute to play in a final since Diego Maradona's return to the final at Italia '90 ended in shame.
Andres Iniesta was the pearl from the swine, the rescuer from the surrogate thrills of a penalty shootout when the game had perhaps deserved such an unsatisfactory conclusion. The historians may not now remember Spain as a team for the ages, despite their wealth of talent. Four 1-0 wins in a row cannot place a team in the pantheon of the greats of a beautiful game, despite the undoubted class of Iniesta. Meanwhile, Johan Cruyff and co can rest assured that their own place in history will not be shunted aside for this brand of not-so brilliant Oranje, who chose the divisive dark side, the underhand nature that has sometimes sullied their national team. They lost narrowly but badly too, in a spirit that will win them few friends.
The occasion had been blessed with Nelson Mandela, a man as close to a deity as it is possible to be among humankind. In a sporting fashion, players from both Spain and Netherlands were able to secure a piece of immortality, though perspective, an overused word in the footballing world, had been placed by Mandela's two-minute go-kart ride around the pitch to applaud attending fans. South Africa's mission of asserting itself has been accomplished in the past month, and "Madiba" had supplied the coup de grace. The football could now begin, though the former president would be watching from the comfort of his own home rather than a somewhat chilly Soccer City. Mandela probably didn't realise his luck until he was sat in front of his flatscreen and a roaring fire. A man of his age need not have been exposed to this.
For the players of Netherlands and Spain, immortality may have to wait - to be replaced by notoriety for their part in a match of ill temper and, until the latter stages, failing technique. What came first, the Spanish overreaction or the Dutch hacking? They were swiftly at one, and the first half was nothing short of a disgrace. Mark van Bommel revels in his role as the bad guy, and it was his lofty frame at the centre of much of the nastiness, with perhaps his lowest point coming in sarcastically smashing the ball off the pitch when Spain had done the same to allow medical attention to a Dutch injury. By then, he had long been in the book for a prmeditated assault on Sergio Busquets.
That is not to absolve the Spanish. Too often they implored referee Howard Webb to book their opponents, and their five bookings, though outnumbered by the Dutch's sorry total of nine - two of which transformed into a red for John Heitinga - were all deserved. Busquets seemed willing to repeat the theatrics that won him infamy when getting Thiago Motta sent off in last season's Champions League. For Total Football read total mess. Dutch dirtiness was closely matched by Spanish theatrics, though Nigel de Jong was exceedingly lucky to stay on the pitch for his mid-air open midriff surgery on Xabi Alonso. He was almost certainly saved by the occasion itself.
English ref Webb was forced into a number of early bookings, and though many of his decisions were called into question by the penalised side, he did well to complete the 90 minutes with a full quota of participants. An additional 30 was too long for there not to be an eventual dismissal. Heitinga's second yellow for a softish foul on Iniesta forced Webb into the inevitable flourish of red, for which the Evertonian should offer no complaints. Webb was booed during the presentations, of course by the Dutch fans, but he was unfortunate to have been presented with two teams too willing to duke it out in physical rather than footballing terms. This would have been an exceptionally hard game to officiate.
Occasionally, a football match did break out. Decent chances were presented to both teams, and the Dutch will know theirs were the better, with Arjen Robben certain to have recurring nightmares about the dual duels he lost with Iker Casillas in normal time. Sergio Ramos missed perhaps Spain's best chance when heading over on 77 minutes. His team's other chances had often been snatched; that Spanish search for the perfect goal often meaning that David Villa's opportunities would be rushed. His best hope of the Golden Boot came via a Dutch mistake, when Jesus Navas, a sub whose showing here was certainly better than his early-tournament failings, crossed but Villa screwed it wide, getting the chance to kick the ball into the air in frustration when it rebounded to him from the side netting. Thomas Muller will be the recipient of the award on a count-back of assists.
Cesc Fabregas, another sub, served notice of the extra-time danger mounting on the Dutch when slashing his shot into Maarten Stekelenberg's legs when played through by Iniesta. His return of the favour to Iniesta the other side of the extra-time break saved the ignominy of a shootout following on from a game of no goals, as happened in Pasedena for the 1994 final. Barcelona's imp beat the offside trap and slotted with as much as aplomb as could be considered possible at such a time on such an occasion. The Dutch, in keeping with their evening of petulance, claimed a foul had earlier been committed on Eljero Elia, with their only reward being another booking, this time for Mathijsen.
Spain's reward was the cementing of their European crown with global glory, though not with the quality of their 2008 triumph in Vienna. None of their seven games, even the victory over the Hondurans, came easy to them, and though their appreciation and confidence in their own abilities must be admired, their status as the lowest-scoring champions in history tells a story. However, so too does their miserly concession of just two goals. Vicente del Bosque's team primacy has been unarguable, coming through the adversity of their first game, and the Spanish nation will celebrate like never before. South Africa, for its hosting of a tournament that has done so much to set aside preconception, has a worthy champion to remember. It is a pity that they did not receive a final of sufficent merit to go with it.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Andres Iniesta. Always probing, always looking for the opportunities and eventually taking the golden chance. He was often drawn into the silliness but was possessive of the class to eventually rise above it. How thankful Spain will be that his injury problems abated as the tournament got underway.
SPAIN VERDICT: The history men were made to wait, and this was a day without comfort. Iker Casillas can be considered an equal hero to Iniesta, for his two saves from Robben. But a team with Xavi and Iniesta will always have the ability to create opportunities, and it helps to have a near-equal in Fabregas to share the load. When it came, it was taken with quality. This triumph and that of 2008 are golden times for Spain, though the earlier glory may well be reflected brighter in years to come.
DUTCH VERDICT: The copybook was not only blotted but defiled horribly. From the very early stages, when Spain looked in a groove, the mission soon became to distract and distort. De Jong and Van Bommel were the leading villains while Robben will be the man remembered for his misses. Sympathy cannot be too readily supplied for he hardly behaved any better. A shame considering the excitement they generated in ending South America's challenge but the football world preferred it when they played prettily and lost that way too.
A WORTHY RECIPIENT: Diego Forlan was announced as the winner of the "Golden Ball" for best player at this tournament and readily received your scribe's vote. No-one from this game deserved to top him for his contribution in carrying Uruguay to the edge of the final itself. For the record, the Soccernet votes - from myself and colleague Joy Gupta - were as follows: Forlan 1 (both JB and JG), Iniesta 2 (JB), Sneijder 2 (JG), Xavi 3 (JB), Villa 3 (JG).