The animals were done with their predictions. From Paul the Octopus to some parrot in Singapore and even an alligator, every living being had given their predictions for what was proving to be one of the most anticipated finals in the history of the World Cup. Spain, who are the closest exponents of ‘Totaal Voetbal’, took on the country which invented it, the Netherlands. There was immense pressure on both teams, and one could feel the tension grow as kick-off loomed large at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.
Spain: Victorious at last
Most people had predicted that the two teams would cancel each other out, and the line-ups suggested the same. Spain went in with the same side that took the field against Germany in the semi-final, with Pedro getting the nod over Fernando Torres. Holland on the other hand, made two changes to the team that played against Uruguay, with Nigel De Jong and Gregory Van Der Wiel returning from suspension to take their place in the starting line-up.
Spain started the game the better of the two sides and had a wonderful opportunity to take the lead just six minutes into the match. Ramos drew in a foul on the right flank, and the ensuing Xavi free kick was met by Ramos, who saw his header brilliantly saved by Stekelenberg. The Dutch registered their first shot on target a minute later, when Busquets lost the ball in a dangerous area, but Kuyt could only manage to shoot straight at Casillas.
Spain were looking threatening in the early exchanges and they had another opportunity in the 11th minute,when Sergio Ramos got the better of Kuyt in the box, but his low cross was put out of play by Heitinga. The ensuing corner kick found its way to Alonso, whose cross was volleyed wide by David Villa at the far post.
The match, which was labeled as an extravaganza of attacking football, soon got messy, with tackles flying in from both sides. The Dutch were the instigators, indulging in some rough tackling, led by Van Bommel. In a span of thirteen minutes, five players saw the yellow card, with two Spanish and three Dutch players being carded for tackles ranging from mild to downright horrible. The worst of the lot was a full fledged kung-fu kick by De Jong on Xabi Alonso, a foul that ideally should have seen the Dutch midfielder being sent off. Referee Howard Webb had a lot of work to do as tempers began to fly, with football taking a backseat to some atrocious tackling.
With neither team willing to give an inch, the game turned into a scrappy affair lacking the flair that most expected it to have. Chances were few and far between, and Holland had a real chance when a short Arjen Robben corner saw Van Bommel scuff his shot and Joris Mathijsen failing to connect with the deflection. The Dutch, having weathered the initial storm, had another opportunity in the dying minutes of the first half when a well taken Dutch free kick was cleared by Carles Puyol. The clearance fell straight at the feet of Robben, who skipped inside and took a low shot at goal which Casillas parried wide.
That piece of action brought an end to a scrappy first half, which saw very little in terms of quality on the pitch. The Dutch went into the break lucky to still have eleven men on the field, as the Nigel De Jong deserved a straight red for his horrible tackle on Alonso. Howard Webb was by far the busiest man on the pitch.
The two teams resumed their on field battle as the second half kicked off. Spain had a half chance just three minutes into the second half ;a Spanish corner found Capdevila unmarked on the far post, but the Spanish fullback failed to connect cleanly from seven yards out.
Opportunities were hard to come by, and frustration started to creep in as Heitinga and Van Bronckhorst saw their names added to the growing list of players with yellow cards. The Dutch managed to carve out the best chance of the game in the 61st minute, when a wonderful ball from Wesley Sneijder saw Arjen Robben get behind the Spanish defense. The Bayern winger had just the keeper to beat, but Iker Casillas pulled off a fantastic save to deny Holland the lead.
With the game opening up, Villa had a wonderful chance to give Spain the lead in the 70th minute. Jesus Navas, who had replaced Pedro, sent in a low cross which was deflected and found its way to an unmarked Villa at the far post, whose shot was blocked by Heitinga. Spain had their best opportunity of the half in the 77th minute, when Xavi’s cross found Sergio Ramos with acres of space, but the full back couldn’t get his header on target.
Holland, playing on the counter, had another wonderful opportunity in the 83rd minute when Robben got the better of Puyol but was unable to beat Casillas. Replays suggested that the Dutchman had been fouled by Puyol, but Webb played the advantage and the danger passed for Spain.
The rest of the half didn’t see much in terms of clear cut opportunities with the Dutch sitting back and playing on the counter against a Spanish side that was dominating possession and looked the more fluent of the two. Six Dutch players were booked in the ninety minutes played; with no goals scored yet, the game moved into extra time.
With the players tiring, the game opened up a lot more in the dying moments of the second half. The situation remained the same as Spain kicked off the first half of extra time. Spain’s claims for a penalty just three minutes into extra time was denied by the referee as both Xavi and Iniesta went down in the box. Cesc Fabregas, who had come on for Xabi Alonso late in the second half, then had a wonderful opportunity to put Spain ahead just two minutes later, but his shot was blocked by Stekelenburg when an open David Villa would have been a better option.
Andres Iniesta: The man with the golden boot
With the Dutch struggling, Spain had another wonderful chance in the 99th minute when Fabregas released Iniesta, but Iniesta took too long on the ball and was dispossessed by Van Bronckhorst. Spain ended the first half of extra time as the more attacking of the two teams.
Just two minutes into the second half though, the Dutch were rocked as Heitinga was shown a second yellow for a challenge on Iniesta , reducing the Dutch to ten men. The Dutch reverted to a 4-4-1 with Van Bommel replacing Heitinga in the center of the Dutch defense. The Spanish threat was growing steadily, and just as it looked like the game might be heading to penalties, the goal came. In a brilliant move, Navas floated in from the right and passed the ball to Fabregas, who passed it to Fernando Torres on the left flank. The Liverpool frontman tried to float the ball to Iniesta, but his cross was blocked and it fell to Fabregas, who threaded a neat pass to the unmarked Iniesta. The Barcelona man took one touch to control the ball and slotted the ball past a hapless Stekelenberg. After 116 minutes, the goal had finally come and it was the Spaniards who were rejoicing.
The Dutch tried their best to find an equaliser, but with a man down and just 4 minutes left on the clock, it was always going to be difficult. The final whistle saw both sets of players down on their knees – the Spanish with the joy of having created history and the Dutch with the pain of once again coming up short in a world cup final.
For a country as divided as Spain, the World Cup proved to be a unifying factor. The ‘golden generation’ of Spanish football set the record straight as Spain, with a footballing tradition as rich as any other country on the planet, finally got their hands on the elusive trophy. A journey that started two years back finally culminated in a triumphant evening in Johannesburg.
Arjen Robben: If only…
As for the Dutch, the pain of having missed out yet again will be unbearable. They came up against a determined Spanish side, and lost to the better team on the day. The ghost of ’74 and ’78 still lives on.
The Hard Tackle’s Player of the Match:
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
The Spanish mid fielder was instrumental in Spain’s victory over Holland. Apart from his extra time goal which sealed the victory for his team, he was also involved in a number of Spanish attacks and along with club mate Xavi, bossed the mid field. A truly wonderful performance .
A special mention for Iker Casillas who put in a wonderful performance to deny Arjen Robben twice and keep Spain in the game.
The Hard Tackle’s Referee Report Card:
Howard Webb (England)
A world cup final is always a difficult game to referee, especially when both teams decide to practice some martial arts on the pitch. Webb had a decent game in the face of some pretty rough play from both sides. His decision not to send off Nigel De Jong for what can best be described as a full fledged kick into the chest of Alonso was baffling, and he didn’t spot the foul on Robben either. The game deserved the thirteen yellow cards , as both teams were guilty of some horrid play but more was expected of the referee in an occasion of such magnitude.
NETHERLANDS 0-1 SPAIN
Venue: Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg
Netherlands Line-Up: Maarten Stekelenberg, Joris Mathijsen, John Heitinga, Giovanni van Bronckhorst (105′ Edson Braafheid), Gregory Van Der Wiel, Nigel De Jong (99′ Rafael Van Der Vaart), Mark Van Bommel, Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt (71′ Eljero Elia), Arjen Robben
Manager: Bert Van Marwijk
Caution: Robin Van Persie (15′), Mark Van Bommel (22′), Nigel De Jong (28′), Giovanni van Bronckhorst (54′), John Heitinga (57′), Arjen Robben (84′), Gregory Van Der Wiel (111′), Joris Mathijsen (117′)
Sent-Off: John Heitinga (109′)
Spain Line-Up: Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Joan Capdevila, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso (87′ Cesc Fabgregas), Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro (60′ Jesus Navas), David Villa (106′ Fernando Torres)
Manager: Vicente Del Bosque
Caution: Carles Puyol (16′), Sergio Ramos (23′), Joan Capdevila (67′), Andres Iniesta (118′), Xavi (120’+1)
Scorer: Andres Iniesta (116′)