To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. For Spain, anyway. For Holland, it was just the worst of times.
In some respects, the Dutch players brought it on themselves. In abandoning Total Football (much like Brazil abandoned its joga bonito style) in search of championships, the Dutch employed a guerrilla style that results in fouls. Take Mark van Bommel, for example. He’s a hard man in the middle, and I respect that. But if we’re being honest, he probably should have been booked at least 10-15 times more than he was (once). The same can be said of Nigel de Jong. The problem, then, is that while the Dutch played sturdy defense, they fouled too much. Which is exacerbated when trying to mark players as skilled as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
So how did Spain win? Patience and perseverance. Spain frustrates opponents because it controls the game in ways other teams can only dream of. It’s intimidating. Look how passive the Germans were against Spain, as compared to their other games. Look at how passive the Dutch were today, despite their tough pre-match talk. It was all posturing because they, like the other teams Spain played, became flustered by their lack of possession.
Spain’s patience was rewarded, albeit extraordinarily late. Iniesta’s goal was the result of a good build-up and a terrible cross (with a lucky bounce) by Fernando Torres. The point is that the build-up, the probing (in Martin Tyler’s words), is successful. It’s not exactly Barcelona-style beautiful football, but it’s effective, in part because of the skill on Spain’s team and in part because the team is committed to it.
That’s not to say there aren’t any problems. The Spanish back line was curiously bad today (probably because they gave Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder more room than other opponents, and justifiably so). But San Iker was there to save the day on Robben’s especially glorious chance at 62 minutes. David Villa, up front, was frustrated numerous times that he wasn’t found in time (Cesc Fàbregas should have laid the ball out for him) and he blew a couple of open-ish chances. Fernando Torres was off the entire World Cup and pulled up lame near the end of the game. But the good far outweighs the bad for the Spanish team.
A quick comment on Howard Webb’s performance. In a tournament in which the referees were, on the whole, terrible, Webb had a reasonably good game. The bookings (a record number for a final) were all justified. There could have been a couple more, especially if Nigel de Jong had been booked for kicking Xabi Alonso in the chest. In all, it was a choppy game but not because of Webb; it was choppy because of the Dutch tactics.
That should not detract from Spain’s triumph. Spain won the game fair and square. It was the most dominant team over the last 3-4 years and thoroughly deserved to win.
Congratulations to Spain.