Spain continued its run of 1-0 victories, defeating Holland by that score in the World Cup final. Today, it took almost all of a 30-minute overtime period for Spain to get that goal.
The match was a poor one. As this was a World Cup final, not an exhibition game, Holland chose the tactics that gave it the best chance for victory, not those that might make for a pleasing match. The Dutch tried to keep Spain out of its short passing game by pressing up the field and by fouling when necessary. They thus assumed the risk of being carded. And, in fact, the yellow cards came in torrents from referee Howard Webb who doesn’t give them out lightly and did not do so today.
Holland reaped the rewards of its strategy for most of the regular 90 minutes. Goalie Martin Stecklenburg had to make a good save early in the match, but was not troubled much for a long time thereafter. And Holland could easily have snatched the goal that would have meant victory. Arjen Robben had several breakaway opportunities, one of which brought a terrific save from Spain’s Iker Casillas.
But at around the 65 or 70 minute mark, the strain of defending so aggressively (and the stress for many players of doing so under the burden of a yellow card) began to take its toll on Holland. Increasingly, Spain was able to get into its short passing game, and thereby control the match.
Holland held on through regulation time. In overtime, Gio Van Bronkhorst and Nigel de Jong, top defensive players you’d expect to be in the middle of an all-hands-on-deck defensive stand, both came off. Then, fatally, Johnny Heitinga picked up his second yellow card. The Everton man had played very well until then, and the yellow card that saw him off seemed a bit soft. The referee may have been influenced by the theatrical tumble of Iniesta.
As time ran down, though, it looked like Holland would hang on and make it to penalty kicks. But, in a rare moment of non-cynicism, the Dutch went forward to the edge of the penalty box, only to lose possession on a controversial non-call by referee Webb.
Spain counter-attacked and Holland, now a man short, struggled to get back in numbers. The Dutch nonetheless seemed to deal with the attack, but a poor clearance — the kind you see from exhausted legs — kept the attack alive. Fabregas found Iniesta on the right. With the left side of the Dutch defense nowhere in sight, Iniesta had only Stecklenburg to beat, which he accomplished with a sweet strike.
Spain undoubtedly deserved its victory, as has been the case throughout the knock-out matches. But with only 8 goals in 7 matches (a record low for a champion), and having needed extra time to defeat a flawed Holland side, this team will not be remembered as one of the outstanding World Cup winners. Not that anyone in Spain will care.
Nor, I think, will this be remembered as an outstanding World Cup. There were some thrilling matches, but the best of them came early in the tournament (and in the rather meaningless contest for third place) and involved relatively inconsequential teams — U.S. vs. Slovenia, U.S. vs. Algeria; Italy vs. Slovakia; Ghana vs. Uruguay. The match-ups we dreamed of either didn’t materialize (e.g. Spain vs. Brazil) or were disappointing (e.g. Germany vs. England, Germany vs. Argentina; Germany vs. Spain; Spain vs. Holland). Even Brazil vs. Holland lost some of its drama when Brazil was reduced to 10 men.
But at least only two matches went to penalty kicks, and neither involved true contenders for the title. And at least the title went to the best team.
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