A late goal from Andrés Iniesta gave Spain victory over Holland at the death of a cynical and ill-tempered final
To Spain, the glory of a World Cup triumph in which they prevailed over a deplorable Holland side that was reduced to 10 men was sealed when the English referee Howard Webb eventually dismissed Dutch defender John Heitinga with a second caution in the 109th minute. Cesc Fábregas, on as substitute, fed Andrés Iniesta to score the winner seven minutes later.
An unforgettably ugly World Cup final ground its way to a penalty shoot-out, after offering cautions in place of goals. Holland were overwhelmingly the guilty party, with eight bookings to Spain's four. Although football was not wholly excluded, chances were shunned and the Spain right-back Sergio Ramos put a free header high from a corner kick in the 77th minute. A little later, Arjen Robben broke clear for Holland but Iker Casillas saved at his feet. The goalkeeper's team-mates had not been incisive enough until the very end.
The mayhem and nastiness of the occasion was an encumbrance for Spain, who will have visualised a wholly different type of game. It was potentially unsettling that victory should be seen as their destiny considering that they had never even reached the final before. Vicente del Bosque's side, for that matter, have developed a highly individual style founded on exceptional technique that exhausts and demoralises opponents as a midfield of supreme artistry confiscates the ball.
The flaw lies in the fact that possession can be an end in itself for Spain. European champions though they might be, the team began its World Cup programme in South Africa with a defeat by Switzerland. They went behind then and a single goal sufficed for the victors. That occasion must have been prominent in the thoughts of the coach Bert van Marwijk and the Holland players. It can certainly be agreed that adversity of another sort lay before Spain in Johannesburg.
There had been an expectation that the Dutch would be much less respectful than the young Germany side that lost to Spain in the last four. Holland have a hard-bitten air and Mark van Bommel, the defensive midfielder, is utterly at peace while making enemies. Curiously, the Bayern Munich player attracts the bulk of the animosity despite the fact that it was his abrasive colleague Nigel de Jong, of Manchester City, who was suspended from the semi-final.
Van Bommel did collect a caution here but notoriety was being dispersed liberally. His yellow card was the third of four that Webb had flashed by the 22nd minute. The teams had a pair apiece by then and there was a kind of parity as an initially nervous Holland settled down. De Jong took up old habits unacceptably later in the first-half, but escaped with a yellow card after landing his studs in the chest of Xabi Alonso.
The midfielder was unscathed, but Spain had a fragility of sorts. Fernando Torres, out of form since a knee injury in March, was again among the substitutes. That had not left the team toothless, but they had to step out of character for the semi-final, when the centre-back Carles Puyol scored the single goal with a pounding header at a set-piece.
As it turns out, the direct approach may not be as alien to this side as we suppose. Ramos leapt to connect with a Xavi set-piece after four minutes and Maarten Stekelenburg was fully extended to parry to his right. The finer points of open play were forgotten before the interval. Spain, as anticipated, had more polish but the final assuredly did not gleam. Intrigue lay, after a further foul or two, in speculation as to how close Webb had come to giving Van Bommel a second yellow card.
Holland were also menacing in laudable ways. A prepared move for instance involved Arjen Robben pulling back a corner to an unmarked Van Bommel, but the midfielder miscontrolled his attempt. That was in keeping with the shabby character of the final then, but the Dutch may have found satisfaction in being in contention against Spain. In the 45th minute, the goalkeeper Iker Casillas had to be alert to turn behind a Robben effort that could have sneaked past him at the near post.
Whatever was said at half-time did not lead to many people changing their way. Before an hour was completed, it had been necessary for Webb to caution Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Johnny Heitinga of Holland. Van Bronckhorst is captain, veteran and cultivated left-back but not even he could rise above the ugliness.
The tone might have altered swiftly with a goal that looked likely in the 62nd minute. Wesley Sneijder suddenly introduced artistry with the lovely pass that freed Robben and the winger attempted to take care, yet Casillas got his right leg in the path of the shot and conceded merely a corner. It was a spell in which Holland were in the ascendancy. The better moments made it all the more infuriating that Webb still had to keep reaching for a yellow card. For convenience sake, he would have been as well keeping it in his hand at all times. Football did break through now and again, with Spain squandering an excellent opportunity.
A piercing cross from the substitute Jesús Navas went through the legs of Heitinga, but David Villa met the ball cleanly and it was deflected for a corner. By that stage both sides must have understood the unpalatable nature of the final, with Holland the principal offenders, but it was beyond them to mend their ways.
© Guardian News and Media 2010