In claiming its first World Cup championship with a 1-0 win over a hardworking but ultimately overmatched Dutch team, Spain demonstrated that playing beautiful football isn’t a reward in itself. If you want the trophy, sometimes you’ve got to win a little ugly. And this game was no a piece of art. Spain was more than willing to play, but Holland was not going to allow it.
It was not until deep into the second overtime, after Holland’s John Heithinga was dismissed for pulling down Andrés Iniesta on one of his many trips into the Dutch penalty box, that Spain solved the Dutch defense. The hard-luck forward Fernando Torres, inserted for the last 15 minutes, hit a cross that Holland’s Rafael Van der Vaart could only knock down. Cesc Fábregas, another late sub, gathered the scraps and looked right. There stood Iniesta. The midfielder, who’d already botched a couple of chances trying to dribble in the box, didn’t bother with anything fancy. He smashed the ball past Holland keeper Maarten Stekelenberg into the far corner for the winner.
The Dutch had two options to try to stop Spain’s ballet corps of footballers from dancing around them as they had done with every other team. The first was to deny Spain the ball by attacking. The second was to mass defensive troops in front of their own goal, as Switzerland did, and try to destroy the Spanish rhythm. Holland chose the latter, riding the relentless fouling of its midfielder destroyer Mark Van Bommel and getting tireless running out of Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.
It was an understandable choice. In its earlier appearances in the finals of 1974 and 1978, Holland was considered soccer’s elite squad. This time those shoes were on Spanish feet, and Holland made no pretense about trying to copy the precious possession game that brought Spain the European championship in 2008. For the first 15 minutes, Holland let Spain have the ball and challenged the Spaniards to do something with it. They nearly did, first in the 5th minute when Sergio Ramos headed directly at Stekelenburg, and then in the 12th when Xabi Alonso found David Villa at the far post on a free kick, only to have Villa escort it into the side netting with a halfhearted volley.
The rest of the half devolved into something less than eloquent, with referee Howard Webb dispensing four yellow cards over a couple of minutes, including one to Nigel DeJong for trying to run his foot through Alonso’s chest. But it was enough to disrupt Spain’s rhythm for most the evening. The game bogged down considerably, just as World Cup finals often do, which you had to say favored Holland. Spain had 62% of the possession at the half, but little of the play.
Sadly, this pattern would describe the entire second half and two unfortunate overtime periods. Despite the less than stellar play, each team would have golden opportunities to claim the prize. In the 62nd minute Robben came steaming down the middle after collecting a long pass, but Casillas forced him on to his unfavored right foot and hooked a leg out to save Spain.
In the 83rd minute Robben again got onto a long headed ball after running around Puyol. The clearly panicked Puyol saw the Cup going by him and grabbed Robben. But for once the Dutch midfielder, who generally falls over in a light breeze, stayed on his feet as Casillas saved. Referee Webb let play go on, and a furious Robben nearly jumped in Webb’s ear, earning a yellow card for it. But Holland’s chances of winning were gone.
Spain also made it difficult by spurning a great chance when Sergio Ramos, left alone in the box on a corner, managed to head over the bar. In the 95 th minute Fábregas was denied by Stekelenberg after he beat the Dutch offiside trap. And Andrés Iniesta’s reluctance to use his left cost Spain the game when he was tracked down by Von Bronckhorst deep in the box and dispossessed.
It would all come down to one cross in a hundred that Holland couldn’t deal with. It was a just ending, ample reward for Spain’s skill and industry. This game had the potential to be tremendous, yet it was tremendously disappointing.