ANDRES INIESTA won the World Cup for Spain, and for football, as he scored the most dramatic of extra-time winners to deny a Holland team who abandoned the beautiful game and had one man sent off and eight booked in a bruising final in Johannesburg.
Spain, already the European champions, needed to show all their resolve and technical skill to survive a barrage of cynical tackles that made a mockery of Holland’s reputation as guardians of Total Football; and their determination to do things the right way eventually paid dividends as late as the 116th minute.
By that time John Heitinga had already been sent off for the Dutch, rightful punishment for the way Bert van Marwijk’s side approached this.
It was an approach that so nearly worked, partly thanks to the lenience of referee Howard Webb, but thankfully for the future of the game, Spain’s reward came when substitute Cesc Fabregas beat the offside trap to set Iniesta free on the right of the area — and the Barcelona man calmly finished past Maarten Stekelenburg.
Holland complained furiously there had been a foul in the build-up but really they should have been thankful to have 10 men on the pitch at so brutal had been some of their challenges earlier in the game — and make no mistake the best team at this World Cup has just been crowned champions.
In fairness Holland knew they had to be competitive to survive against Spain’s passing dominance but at times they took that mantra to extremes with van Bommel in particular fortunate to remain on the pitch after a string of horrendous tackles.
In the end Heitinga did take an early bath for a second yellow in extra-time but Nigel De Jong could have gone way earlier following a kung-fu kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso.
Sergio Ramos came closest to breaking the deadlock after only six minutes when his header from a Xavi cross was well saved at full stretch by Stekelenburg, but the Dutch gradually disrupted their opponents’ fluency, ruthlessly put their boot in where it hurts and eventually creating a chance of their own just before half time, when Arjen Robben forced a fine save from Iker Casillas.
Some of the tackles from veteran van Bommel — on Puyol and Iniesta especially — were x-rated and even Wesley Sneijder was fortunate to stay on the pitch after a crunching tackle on Sergio Busquets; and the longer the match went on the more inevitable it seemed that someone would end it with only 10 men on the pitch.
Even after the break the tackles continued to fly as Holland pressed and pressed whenever Spain were in possession; van Bronckhorst was booked for a cynical pull and Heitinga followed suit on David Villa.
But the more the challenges went in the more frustrated Spain became and the more Holland began to realise their tactics, however controversial, were working.
There was never a clearer example of that than after 62 minutes when Sneijder set Robben free with a perfect through-ball and the Bayern Munich man was denied at the very last by the legs of Casillas just when it seemed the Spaniard had beaten.
That moment was crucial because it signalled the start of a more free-flowing game as the Spanish did everything in their power to quicken the pace following the introduction of winger Jesus Navas, who almost immediately set up a wonderful chance for David Villa, denied from close range by a remarkable block from Heitinga.
Then Ramos, completely unmarked from a Xavi corner after 77 minutes, somehow managed to head wildly over the bar.
When Robben outpaced Puyol late only, only to be denied again by Casillas, you knew we were destined for the first goalless World Cup Final since Italy v Brazil in 1994; and even in extra time, when players began to tire, the ball just wouldn’t find its way into the net.
Spanish substitute Fabregas was superbly denied by Stekelenburg when through on goal while Navas saw a shot that was arrowing for the net deflected for a corner — and even when Heitinga was rightly sent off for blocking Iniesta 19 minutes into extra time the goal remained intact. Until, that is, the magical 116th minute.
Spain’s celebrations were emotional, tearful and colourful — even for sub Fernando Torres who picked up an injury in extra-time and looks set to return to Liverpool injured.
Right now the important thing is that Spain, for the first time in their history, are world champions. And the team who played football the right way at this World Cup won the prize. For the future of the game that means everything.
Subs for Spain: Jesus Navas for Pedro, 60; Fabregas for Alonso, 87; Torres for Villa, 105.
Subs for Holland: Elia for Kuyt, 70; Van der Vaart for De Jong, 99; Braafheid for Van Bronckhorst, 105.
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