Dutch run out of aces
The statistics don't lie. Eight yellows (two of which made a red), 14 shots to Spain's 21, 28 fouls to their 19 and 37% possession. And the one goal conceded, deep into extra-time. The Netherlands deployed their Plan A - get up close and very personal - and even tried out Plan B, which was the occasional attack. They held out for 116 minutes but eventually the accumulated mass of all those statistics weighed against them - especially the cards. You could say they dealt themselves a really bad hand.
And so third time unlucky for Dutch but this was no rough justice; they had two of the three easiest chances on the night which, if converted, would have sealed the match for them in normal time. But even their most ardent supporters would have winced at the crunching tackles, too often high or late, and the rising card count and wondered at the merits of, and wisdom in, such intemperate football.
Their coach Bert van Marwijk was reasonably candid when asked about the style adopted, and whether he had any regrets that the Dutch could not play beautiful football. "It was still our intention to play beautiful football, but we were facing a very good opponent,'' he said. ''Both sides committed fouls. That may be regrettable for a final. It's not our style, but you play a match to win. It's a World Cup final, and there's a lot of emotion out there. I'd loved to have won that match, even with not so beautiful football."
Playing hard isn't alien to Dutch football, not even in the years of totalvoetball. In David Winner's Brilliant Orange, Ajax's cultured defender Barry Hulshoff talks about how Rinus Michels, the architect of that freeflowing brand, reacted to a 4-1 defeat to AC Milan in the 1969 European Cup final. "Michels wanted me to be harder, meaner, to foul forwards if they beat me. He wanted me to kick a man, just take him out." It was a dangerous game, walking the tightrope, and it almost worked - but for the resilience of the Spanish players and Andres Iniesta's incredible penchant for late, late winners.
And yet the Dutch produced some of the positive football that has brought them this far in South Africa. After a torrid opening spell, when they were run ragged by Spain, displayed nerves and picked up three yellows inside half an hour, they began stringing together a few passes and effecting some of their dangerous breaks. Most of their moves involved Arjen Robben, including two beautiful runs down the right flank, a Dutch clipper sailing past a series of tackles, and, on the stroke of half-time, a shot on the turn from the edge of the box that Iker Casillas could only parry away.
They went into the break on the up, and emerged from it the brighter and sharper. There were more moments from Robben, and the fitful Robin van Persie, before those two moments after the hour that will no doubt replay in the winger's head for years to come. The first was when he was released by Wesley Sneijder, whose relative sluggishness suggests he may finally have hit a wall after months of ceaseless running.
Robben sprang the offside trap and had only Casillas to beat; his shot was on target but the keeper managed to stick out a leg and deflect it away. The second came shortly before the end of normal time, when Robben burst clear of Carles Puyol and faced Casillas, who somehow grabbed hold of the ball after the Dutchman lost his balance and screamed foul.
This could have been the night for Van Persie to find his form but the Arsenal striker was almost as colourless as he's been through this tournament, with only a couple of flashes to show his class. His first contribution, though, was to inaugurate the procession of yellows with a late tackle on Joan Capdevila. Almost an hour later the favour was returned, Van Persie almost breaking free from his marker with a delightful turn before being brought down.
There were few other bright sparks for the Dutch; the only sparks were those flying out of the tackles that were committed almost ceaselessly. Part of it seemed to stem from a complete inability to play the Spaniards any other way, part intimidation, part cynical defending in the hope that the referee would miss it. Part, it must be said, was due also to Spanish overreaction to physical play. The net effect, though, was to reduce the likes of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong - who followed Van Persie into Howard Webb's book - into further tentativeness, and increase the pressure on the back four. Something had to give and John Heitinga's expulsion in extra time was no surprise.
That half hour belonged to Spain. The Dutch lost their captain, Giovanni van Bronckhorst coming off in his last ever international, though not before making one crucial interception in the 99th minute, robbing Iniesta of the ball when he had broken free and was through on a Fabregas pass. Seven minutes later, with the captain gone and Heitinga dismissed, it was action replay: Fabregas fed Iniesta on the far right. This time there was no-one to intercept and Rafeal van der Vaart was the only line of defence.
The Dutch, having already lost neutral hearts, had run out of aces. Their one consolation is the wild card no one expected: The only team to be undefeated in this World Cup is named after the Dutch province of Zeeland.