19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
1H/SPAIN 1, 1E/NETHERLANDS 0 (after extra time)
Soccer City Stadium - Johannesburg
Referee: Howard Webb (England)
The story really should be about Spain -- the magic that is woven throughout the passes of their Barcelona-dominated starting eleven, the sound technical play that comes from spending most of the past three years togteher at the national level and for many at the club level as well, the ability to shuck decade upon decade of underachievement to script a new identity as champions. This story is about guys like Andres Iniesta, the midfield dynamo who created scoring chance after scoring chance throughout the tournament and then put the ball into the net himself in the final for the biggest goal of his career. It is about guys like David Villa, who tied with fellow finalist Wesley Sneijder and semifinalists Diego Forlan of Uruguay and Thomas Muller of Germany for the lead in goals scored in South Africa with five, each one an artistic testament to his skill both on and off the ball. It is about a stout back line that was the toast of the tournament... and able to play forward, Sergio Ramos cutting up the right and Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique dominating the box on set pieces and setting up the attack. It is about a team for whom possession was the pinnacle of their art, the tiki-taka serving as both offense and defense for this well-balanced side.
They've shown perseverance (becoming the first champion in World Cup history to prevail after losing their first group game, 1-0 to Switzerland) and a taste for the historic. They are just the third nation, after Germany (Switzerland, 1954) and Brazil (Sweden, 1958), to claim their first World Cup on foreign soil; they are also just the third European team to possess both the continental and world title simultaneously after winning Euro 2008. They were the first champion crowned on African soil, the final in Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg wrapping up what in the end was a spectacular month for South Africa in the eyes of the world...
See, that's what the story should be about. But given that the Netherlands came thisclose to stealing away the trophy from Spain, when their brand of studs-up football left everyone lamenting the loss of beauty from the Dutch game, there is another side of the coin which really bears mentioning. The Oranje were goons, they were actors, and they were more intent on keeping Spain from scoring than they were on finding a goal of their own to nab the victory. As defender Joris Mathijsen summed it up most poignantly in a postmatch interview with SI, "You can't win the World Cup without scoring a goal in the final. They did, that's why they're deserved world champions. We didn't lose because of all the bad decisions from the referee but because Spain scored a goal and deservedly won."
Talk has certainly swirled, naturally, around the officiating decisions of Howard Webb, the first English referee of a World Cup final since Jack Taylor presided over the 1974 final between West Germany and the Netherlands and the first man to arbitrate both the UEFA Champions League final and the World Cup final in the same year -- one of the overriding threads throughout this tournament has been the officials and the way they've called matches, so the final should probably be no different. But as much as many Dutch (fans, media, players -- Mathijsen excepted) want to blame Webb for their woes in the wake of a 14-card performance (ten going to the Netherlands, eight yellows and a red accompanying a ninth yellow as a second offense to John Heitinga) it was precisely their style of play which warranted the repeated trips by Webb to his pocket to procure his yellow card time and time again.
Perhaps it was the antithesis to the manner in which he has officiated so far this tournament, and indeed in the Champions League final as well. But Webb, the 38-year-old South Yorkshire police sergeant who in the course of a five-year leave of absence has become the preeminent referee in international football, was forced by the circumstances of play to try to nip the harsh play at the bud early. With five cards issued in the first 28 minutes of play, the blame falls squarely on the players rather than the official in this instance. If anything, the Dutch were lucky to emerge wholly intact by halftime -- the high kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso by Nigel de Jong in the 28th minute, nowhere near the ball that Xabi was heading on, was probably deserving of a straight red card yet only received a yellow.
Surely, the Netherlands do have a gripe about the 115th minute free kick by Sneijder that ricocheted off Cesc Fabregas as he stood at the edge of the wall and over the goal line. They deserved a corner kick seeing as Spain was the last to touch the ball, but Webb and his assistants all missed this one crucial momentum swing and gave Iker Casillas the goal kick instead. With possession back, the Spaniards worked the ball downfield, ultimately slotting it through to Iniesta for the game winner six minutes from the final whistle.
Would Spain have scored this goal had the Dutch taken the corner? History will never know... but as Mathijsen was quick to admit, Spain earned the victory more than the Dutch blew it. Ultimately it was the side dedicated to the footballing traditions which migrated with guys like Johan Cruijff from those powerhouse Holland sides of the 1970s and found new roots in Spanish soccer that won the day. The Spanish team of Vicente Del Bosque embraced that Dutch style known as "Total Football", guys like Pique and Ramos and Puyol as able to mesh seamlessly into the attack as Iniesta, Villa and Pedro could get back behind the ball to reclaim possession. The Dutch team of Bert van Marwijk turned its back on those ideals in this final, deciding instead to showcase the more sinister arts of guys like de Jong and his midfield companion Mark van Bommel.
Was the absence of free-flowing offense in the final an impediment to the legacy of this World Cup, or is it ultimately a reflection of the low-scoring atmosphere prevalent in South Africa? Either way, the Spanish proved that the best defense is a good offense... and vice versa. Their return home to a rapturous nation is just reward for a run of dominance paralleled by none but the greatest sides in soccer history, a long-suffering nation finally realizing its potential. For the Dutch, once again vanquished finalists in their third final, the time now comes for reflection on what it really takes to be a champion. They need look no further than the perseverance exhibited by their opponents, who in the face of pace-killing thuggery maintained composure and continued playing their game until the inevitable goal finally came, a string of 1-0 victories capped by another in the biggest game of the year...