Champions of Europe and now champions of the world, Spain captured football’s Holy Grail for the first time with a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands thanks to Andres Iniesta’s 116th-minute strike at Soccer City.
The solitary goal came with penalties looming as substitute Cesc Fabregas played in Iniesta and the little midfielder drove emphatically across Maarten Stekelenburg and into the far corner. With this victory – their fourth successive single-goal win in South Africa – Spain became the eighth name on the FIFA World Cup™ Trophy and also the first European team to have triumphed on a different continent. For the Netherlands, who lost defender John Heitinga to a red card in extra time, there is only the heartache of another tale of what might have been after they completed a hat-trick of Final losses.
This was a match preceded by much talk of two like-minded footballing cultures, of the influence of Dutchmen like Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels, of ‘tiki taka‘ and Total Football. In many ways, as the first 116 minutes showed, it was also a case of the irresistible force versus the immovable object. The Dutch had won 14 straight games to get to the Final, in qualifying and the tournament proper, and Spain 15 out of 16, their only slip the defeat by Switzerland in their first game here in South Africa.
It was the Spanish found their stride first, living up to their pre-game billing as favourites. Vicente del Bosque’s side dominated possession and created the early chances. With the Dutch penned inside their half, goalkeeper Stekelenburg had to make a save after five minutes, diving low to stop a Sergio Ramos header from Xavi’s free-kick from the right. Gerard Pique looked poised to follow up only to be denied by a combination of Joris Mathijsen and Dirk Kuyt.
Ramos came again in the tenth minute, beating Kuyt on the right and driving in a low centre that Heitinga deflected behind. From the corner came another scare for the Netherlands. Xavi played the ball back to Xabi Alonso whose cross went beyond the far post to David Villa but the in-form No7 sliced his volley into the side-netting. After those near things, however, both defences got on top with none of the flair players on either side able to take a grip on proceedings. Instead the yellow-card count began to rise with Nigel de Jong becoming the fifth player in Howard Webb’s notebook by the time the half-hour mark arrived.
With the orange sections of the 84,490 Soccer City crowd finding their voice, Bert van Marwijk’s men almost gave them something to sing about from a corner in the 37th minute. Robben rolled the ball to Mark van Bommel on the edge of the box and although he failed to make a clean connection he unwittingly diverted the ball on to the unmarked Mathijsen but the defender missed his kick. As half-time approached, Iker Casillas had barely had a save to make but entering stoppage time, he had to be alert to deny Robben at his near post as a spell of Dutch pressure ended with the winger spearing in a low shot from the corner of the box.
Puyol, Spain’s semi-final matchwinner, showed his aerial threat once more minutes after the restart when he rose above Heitinga and headed to the far post but Joan Capdevila failed to make contact. The game was gradually opening up and the Dutch spurned a golden opportunity in the 62nd minute when Wesley Sneijder sent Robben running clear. Casillas came to Spain’s rescue, deflecting the shot behind with his right foot when falling the wrong way.
Spain coach Del Bosque had already sent on Jesus Navas for Pedro on the hour and the winger helped pick a hole in the Dutch defence in the 70th minute. Xavi sent him flying down the right into the box and when Heitinga failed to deal with Navas’s low cross, the ball fell to Villa who looked odds-on to score only to see his effort deflected behind. Ramos was equally profligate after 78 minutes when he headed over a Xavi centre when unmarked, after Villa had forced another corner.
Spain were looking the more likely winners and it took Sneijder of all people to foil Iniesta with a smart tackle after his jinking run into the box. Yet Robben’s pace was a persistent threat and the Oranje No11 almost embarrassed Puyol in the 82nd minute, speeding clear of the Spain defender when second-favourite to reach a through-ball. Resisting Pique’s attempt to tackle too, he was foiled only by Casillas, the captain saving at Robben’s feet as the Dutchman tried to round him.
Extra time began with opportunities for Spain. Xavi failed to connect when well positioned and when the ball ran to Villa, his shot went wide off an orange shirt. Substitute Fabregas then broke clear on to Iniesta’s through-ball but was foiled by Stekelenburg. Mathijsen headed wide from a corner but like waves, Spanish attacks kept rolling on to the Netherlands back line and Navas was close with a shot deflected into the side-netting.
Fernando Torres replaced Villa midway through the extra period and Spain gained a man advantage four minutes later with Heitinga’s dismissal for pulling back Iniesta on the edge of the box, the offence earning him a second yellow. Iniesta would not be denied, however, and his fine late strike put Spain into the history books and left a Dutch dream shattered.