Spain reign

2010-07-12 00:00

SPAIN, the European Champions of 2008, have written their names among the greats by winning the World Cup for the first time in the country’s history, overcoming a fiery but negative Netherlands 1-0 in extra time in last night’s final at Soccer City.

Sixty-three matches after Bafana Bafana drew with Mexico in the opener at the same venue, the world’s best team deservedly adopted the crown that fits their heads so comfortably.

To do it Spain had to overcome a rough Netherlands in a final that was not drab so much as engrossing and often testy.

Two excellent sides’ contrasting styles largely cancelled each other out to deny the World Cup the classic finale that had been hoped for.

Spain’s passing game can be effective by creating hopelessness in their opponents. Holland under Bert van Marwijk have adopted the in vogue counterattack favoured at this World Cup.

The Dutch became more attacking in the knockout phases. Last night, though, the Netherlands seemed more bent on stopping Spain from stamping their authority and fluidity, than trying to assert their own domination.

Even Madiba Magic, in the form of Nelson Mandela’s pre-match surprise appearance, could not help produce a more fitting culmination to the memorable, emotional first World Cup on African soil.

On the field, while highly competitive and at times punctuated by explosive action, South Africa’s World Cup will be remembered for the reactive, counterattacking football — in the Champions League-winning mould of Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan — favoured by most of its participants.

The Dutch might complain about the refereeing of Englishman Howard Webb, who handed out 10 yellow cards to the men in Orange and sent off defender Johnny Heitinga for a second booking in the 118th minute. Ultimately, though, Holland lived by the sword in their rough manner aimed at countering the world’s best passing side, and died by it too.

That was why Spain’s victory was also a victory for football. The Spaniards have hardly managed to get into the full flow of the all-conquering, touch-touch football they displayed winning Euro 2008, faced with sides defending deep with eight players.

That was the case again last night, but Vicente del Bosque’s men did at least attempt to play football that was proactive, stamping their personality rather than waiting for the opposition to make mistakes.

Early on this saw the Spaniards produce notable chances.

In the fifth minute, from Xavi’s free-kick swung across goal, Sergio Ramos’s header forced a sharp save from Maarten Stekelenburg.

At the end of a teasing move from left to right, Ramos danced past Giovanni van Bronkhorst and his low cross was put behind for a corner under pressure by Heitinga.

A minute later David Villa was allowed an alarming amount of space to volley into the side-netting.

After that the challenges started to fly in as Webb booked five players between the 15th and 28th minutes.

The game lost its rhythm and in the 34th minute Iker Casillas came close to conceding what would have been the most unusual goal in a World Cup final.

After a Dutch injury Holland lobbed to the goalkeeper to return possession to Spain and Casillas misjudged the flight, the ball passing feet from the Spanish goal.

The silly season continued as Mark Van Bommel completely missed an attempted shot from a good position.

Just before the break Arjen Robben’s skidding shot was pushed behind for a corner by Casillas in the best chance of the half for the Dutch.

As the yellow cards kept flowing to Holland at the start of the second half, the Oranje’s tactics appeared to have unnerved Spain.

From Wesley Sneijde­r’s 62nd-minute pass La Roja’s defence split open for Robben to run through one-on-one with Casillas, with the Real Madrid goalkeeper getting enough on the ball for it to loop just wide of the upright.

To an extent Spain kept their nerve, though squandered two chances.

Substitute Jesus Navas’s squared pass was mis-cleared by Heitinga and Villa’s shot was scrambled for a corner by Stekelenburg. Then Ramos put his free header well over the bar from Xavi’s corner.

In the 83rd minute Carles Puyol was caught for pace from a long clearance to allow Robben through once more, Casillas again making the save.

In extra time Spain found the gear they needed, while Holland’s challenge wilted. Substitute Cesc Fabregas forced a save off Stekelenburg’s legs, while Navas’s shot was deflected into the side-netting.

With Holland continuing to pick up yellow cards, at least one had to turn red. Heitinga, booked in the 57th minute, clattered down Iniesta just outside the Dutch area and Webb produced the second yellow that reduced Holland to 10 men.

A winner for Spain seemed inevitable and came four minutes before the game would go to penalties, when Torres’s cross was blocked by Joris Mathijsen into the path of Fabregas, who was able to find Iniesta in space on the right.

Spain had been wasteful in front of goal, but this time the Barcelona midfielder made sure, blasting his half-volley past Stekelenburg.

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