It’s a curious sight. The BBC’s panel is sitting, for the first time in this tournament suited and booted, in its base studio outside the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, almost eight hundred miles from Johannesberg, where the match itself is being played. It looks deserted, behind them. It probably is – everybody will be at home, watching the build-up to the 2010 World Cup final. Still, at least they won’t have anybody banging on the glass behind them and laughing at Alan Shearer’s male pattern baldness. The preamble to this match carries a somewhat curiously dislocated air to it. The Netherlands have never played Spain in either the European Championship or World Cup finals, so there is no historical precedent between the two teams that can particularly drawn upon, no matter how irrelevant it may be.
Instead, the BBC choose to interview Howard Webb (memo to the 2018 bid committee – “England: Referee Of The World” is not an appropriate sub-heading for the tender documents), recreate some moments from the finals through the medium of smiling African boys and then interview a number of people on the subject of what it means to South Africa to host the World Cup (the answer, condensed to three words, is, “quite a lot”). Next up is Garth Crooks, who meets Ruud Krol, a man who, according to Crooks, “epitomised the 1970s by winning the European Cup three times with Juventus”, which would be an impressive statistic, had it not been AFC Ajax that he won the European Cup with and that he missed one of their three European Cup wins of the 1970s because of a broken leg. Still, the archive footage of Cruyff and company is always worth a repeat viewing. A brief powder puff piece on Spain leads me to reach for the remote control, and I briefly flick the television over to ITV1. Adrian Chiles wakes with a jolt. “Alright, Ian?”, he asks, while Andy Townsend sits next to him with a pleading look on his face. I switch the television back over.
The teams emerge from the tunnel and onto the pitch, and the players are introduced to those twin advocates of womens’ rights, Sepp Blatter and Jacob Zuma. After the introductions and the national anthems, the players are straight off to get warmed up and have their huddles. Within just a few, short minutes, though, they’re off. Loathe though we are to praise FIFA for anything, at least we have been spared a speech on the subject of “the brotherhood of football” (or whatever) from Blatter – that, presumably, was given during the mercifully untelevised closing ceremony. Within five minutes, Spain have a great chance to take the lead. Xavi swings a free kick over from the right-hand side, Sergio Ramos heads powerfully at goal and Maarten Stekelenberg dives to push the ball away. Spain, though, have started very confidently while the Netherlands look tentative and stilted. After ten minutes, Sergio Ramos pasa dobles past Dirk Kuyt and drives the ball low across the face of goal, but John Heitinga clears from under his own crossbar. From the corner, David Villa drives a first time shot into the side netting.
One of the teams on the pitch is trying to play football. Spain are purring like a Rolls Royce engine, and the Dutch don’t seem to be able to get anywhere near the ball. When they do get half a chance, a free kick from an improbable distance and angle, Wesley Sneijder’s free-kick flies straight into the no doubt grateful arms of Iker Casillas. Slowly, though, they start to thaw. Arjen Robben takes off on the left wing and looks like the ball may be stuck to his feet with elastic. The ball is eventually bundled away from him, but his burst of pace wakes up the oranje-clad masses in the crowd. Tempers, though, are freying. Mark Van Bommel, who spent much of the semi-final kicking Uruguayans without censure, attempts to remove Iniesta’s foot without anaesthetic and earns himself a yellow card. Ninety seconds later, Sergio Ramos upends Dirk Kuyt and follows Van Bommel into Howard Webb’s notebook. Six minutes after this (and it is worth pointing out that nothing of note happened in the intervening six minutes), Nigel de Jong, who may have been watching a few too many Bruce Lee movies, attempts a tribute to the South African heart transplant pioneer Dr Cristiaan Barnard on Xabi Alonso and picks up yet another yellow card. That’s five yellow cards in thirteen minutes, which is more than we have had attempts on goal over the same period of time.
A game that started very brightly, then, has descended into a muddle of recrimination, needless kicks and petulance. The ball is put out so that Puyol can receive attention and the Dutch return the ball back to Casillas but it bounces up, catches the goalkeeper by surprise, and flies just wide of the post. It probably wouldn’t have been terribly fitting for the first goal of a World Cup final to be scored in this manner but, and let’s be absolutely honest here, it would have been pretty funny, wouldn’t it? It would also have been pretty apt, for a first half of football that has been as bad-tempered and lacking in grace as we have seen in the entire tournament. Wesley Sneijder masquerades taking a kick at Busquets as trying to win the ball and manages to avoid the booking that he probably deserves. The one player on the Dutch team that doesn’t deserve to be strapped into a dentist’s chair and forced to watch this half of football on a continuous loop for the rest of their lives, Arjen Robben, has a shot from an angle bundled around the post by Casillas. Half-time comes, and it’s goalless.
Three minutes into the second half, another great chance for Spain, when Puyol flicks on a corner and Capdevila, at the far post and completely unmarked, misses his kick altogether. The Dutch tactic is clear: get in amongst the Spanish players and deny them any time on the ball whatsoever, which would be fine if they had anything other than kicking Spanish players up in the air. By the time we have played ten minutes of the second half, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and Heitinga going into the book as well. It’s already reported that the Spanish media are holding Howard Webb responsible for whatever is going on during this match, but it is the Dutch team that is frustrating this match rather than the referee, and it is irritating because they are capable of so much better than they are delivering. When they try to play football, they are as capable as Spain, but we are seeing too little of it. On the hour, Robben is released down the middle as the Spanish offside trap takes on the appearance of a cheap, broken accordion, but he takes too long as he bears down upon Casillas and his shot flicks wide of the post off the goalkeeper’s foot. Still, it’s the best chance so far of a match that feels briefly is if it is starting to come to life.
From here on, though, Spain start to turn the screw. David Villa misses a great chance when a defensive slip by Heitinga from a cross by Navas leaves him unmarked at the far post, but Heitinga recovers and blocks outstandingly. With fifteen minutes to play, a corner from the left-hand side is met by Sergio Ramos. It’s a glorious chance, almost identical to the one from which Carlos Puyol scored the decisive goal in the semi-final against Germany, but Ramos can’t keep his header down and the ball flies harmlessly over the crossbar. As the clocks tick down to zero, the Dutch retire to deeper and deeper position, but they still threaten on the break. A long ball straight from the folder marked “Route One” sees Robben show up Puyol’s lack of pace, but Puyol does manage to hold onto Robben’s shirt for long enough to put him off, and his protests earn him a yellow card.
The break at the end of the ninety minutes allows a pause for reflection. The spoiling Dutch tactics are working – Spain have looked blunt this evening. Two minutes into extra-time, Spain have a call for a penalty kick but the replay seems to indicate that Xavi kicked Heitinga’s foot as he went to shoot rather than vice-versa. Still, though, Spain push for a goal and Cesc Fabregas is released through the middle but Stekelenberg blocks with his legs. It’s starting to open up, now. The ball is sent straight to the other end of the pitch, and the Netherlands have a corner. Casillas misjudges the cross and jumps into Fabregas, leaving Mathijsen with a free header at the far post, but he sends the ball over the crossbar. Suddenly, it feels as if both teams have started to wake up to the fact that they are less than half an hour from a penalty shoot-out that they really don’t want. Fabregas shoots into the side netting from an angle, and the first period of extra-time ends with the feeling that we have seen more entertainment in the previous fifteen minutes than we saw in the first ninety.
Three minutes into the second period of extra-time comes the perhaps inevitable red card. Iniesta is surrounded by defenders just outside the penalty area, but he is clearly held back by Heitinga, who picks up a second yellow card. The Dutch have used all three of their substitutes, and now have to reshuffle defensively, but would be difficult to argue that it is not warranted. A couple of minutes later, Robben can consider himself to be a very lucky boy to not be following him down the tunnel after he kicks the ball away after having been called offside. Then, with a shade over four minutes to play, Spain finally, finally, finally break through, and it’s a goal that has come about in no small part because of Heitinga’s dismissal. Torres clips the ball into the centre, and the ball drops to Cesc Fabregas, who rolls the ball wide to Andres Iniesta. Iniesta steadies himself and lashes the ball across Stekelenberg and in. It’s a tremendous strike, and Dutch protests are utterly futile.
Footballers aren’t particularly known for their sense of irony, but the Dutch could have lost two players to red cards before half-time and complaining about the referee missing a deflection that would have given them a corner thirty seconds or so earlier seems a little bit, well, rich, to say the least. They have nothing left to give, really – a couple of long, relatively aimless balls into the Spanish penalty area, but that’s it. Spain, who started the 2010 World Cup so tepidly, have come good at the right time. They become the first team ever to win the World Cup having lost their opening match, and their victory this evening means that New Zealand end the tournament as the only unbeaten side in the competition. Spain find the time to throw on their red shirts before they go up to collect the trophy.
Van Marwijk, meanwhile, pulls his silver medal off and puts it in his pocket. He’s right, in a way – he doesn’t deserve it, but not in the way that he might think at the moment. When he said that total football is a thing of the past, few felt that he was saying anything unresonable. In the professional era, most people understand that winning with style isn’t an automatic right, if they don’t particualrly want to. However, this evening an invisible line in the sand was crossed during the first half. If a football team plays spoiling tactics and it works, they at least get the trophy. If, however, a team plays spoiling tactics and it fails, all they have left is the criticism that will ring in their ears. The silver medals and censure for the nature of their performance that they will receive over the next few days are likely to be scant consolation. Ultimately, the Netherlands could have played their hand differently this evening, but they chose not to. They had skill and pace on their side
Spain, meanwhile, feel like slightly unsatisfying World Cup winners. They played well this evening, and did in the semi-final against Germany as well. However, they didn’t set the tournament alight at any stage. Whether they will care too much about that this evening is very much open to question of course. They may have cared a little more if they had not won, but it’s unlikely. That’s the nature of professional football. The prize is all that matters. “Glory” has long since passed from being something intangible to being something that comes with numbers. How much do you earn? How many times have you won the World Cup? Nothing else matters, least of all the style with which you do it. Both of the managers this evening understood this, but one of them had, he believed, greater limitations and set out his stall accordingly. Spain won the World Cup this evening and deserved it for at least attempting to play the game – for a game is what it is. The wider question now is whether this evening’s global spectacle is what FIFA wanted the world to see and, if not, whether there is anything that they can do to prevent a repeat of it in the future.
Thanks once again to Historical Football Kits for the use of the graphics.