Spain’s dramatic 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in Sunday’s World Cup Final was the right result. Spain deserve to be world champions for the very first time, and their triumph was also a victory for football.
The Netherlands took an extremely rough and destructive approach to the game. Several very poor challenges were made, with midfield enforcers Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel, in particular, highly fortunate not to join Johnny Heitinga in receiving a red card.
Bert Van Marwijk’s side were almost exclusively interested in defending, and they did so in an unpleasantly physical manner. Their rare attacking incisions sought to exploit Arjen Robben’s pace on the counter-attack, but over the 120 minutes they did nowhere near enough to merit victory.
Spain, by contrast, tried to get the ball down and play — just as they always do. Despite being forced to withstand a barrage of thunderous Dutch challenges, they refused to deviate from their careful, measured strategy based on maintaining possession and attempting to pass their way through the massed ranks of Dutch defence.
The winning goal, coming just four minutes from time, was worthy of deciding such a grand occasion. Cesc Fabregas slid a wonderfully perceptive pass into Andres Iniesta, whose perfect first touch cushioned the ball and created a shooting opportunity. His second touch demonstrated impeccable technique, as he closely watched the slowly dropping ball before connecting cleanly with a powerful volley that gave no chance to Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
Iker Casillas grabs the ball to stop a Dutch attack. - Reuters pic
It was a difficult skill, perfectly executed, and Iniesta was a fitting matchwinner. Aside from an irritating eagerness to dive under minimal contact, he is a joy to watch — his first touch, vision, passing and dribbling ability are perhaps only matched by his midfield colleagues Xavi and Fabregas, and he was probably the best player on the pitch last night.
There were frenzied Dutch objections to the winning goal, with referee Howard Webb confronted by furious complaints that Eljero Elia had been fouled in the passage of play immediately prior to the goal. They may have had a valid point — Sergio Ramos did seem to block the run of the Netherlands winger — but it’s difficult to have too much sympathy for a team that played in such an aggressive and negative manner.
The Netherlands also failed to dignify themselves with their reaction at the final whistle — rather than graciously accepting defeat they again surrounded the beleaguered Webb, inevitably led by objectionable midfielder Van Bommel, who could easily have been sent off for an outrageous foul on Iniesta in the first half.
With their general approach to the game and their ungracious reaction to the loss, it was not a good night for the Netherlands — yet they could have quite easily won it. Robben had possibly the best chance of the game when he was released through the middle by Wesley Sneijder’s precise throughball, but Iker Casillas did well to stand his ground and divert his former Real Madrid team-mate’s shot wide with his feet.
With less than half an hour remaining, if Robben had been able to convert that opportunity it could have proved decisive. I’m glad he didn’t, because a Netherlands victory would have left a nasty taste in the mouth. They got to the final, but they didn’t win many admirers amongst neutrals.
Not only were Spain the best team on the night, they were also the best team throughout the tournament. A surprise 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening game could have led to unnecessary panic, but instead they kept their composure, retained their belief in what they were doing, and started to remind the watching world why they had been regarded as pre-tournament favourites to lift the trophy.
The Spannish have it, the World Cup. - Reuters pic
It didn’t come easily and Spain were rarely at their most fluent best, but after that defeat to Switzerland they always had enough quality to overcome any opponent. The Barcelona pair of Xavi and Iniesta were crucial to their success — always wanting possession, always looking for a measured pass, always trying to create and play constructively.
Spain’s belief in their ability and their tactics lasted right to the end. When confronted with the looming possibility of a penalty shoot-out, it would have been easy for Spain to lose their shape, throw men forward in desperation, and stop doing what they are good at. But they persisted, continued to pass, move, pass, move...and finally — thankfully – they were rewarded.
It might not have been the greatest World Cup Final in history but at least it was settled in style; the best player from the best team scored the winning goal. And we can’t ask for much more than that.