JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Spain became the eighth nation to win the World Cup by scoring a goal against the Netherlands in extra time.
In a fitting end to a low-scoring World Cup, the Spaniards had to wait until six minutes from the end of the 30-minute overtime to score the final’s only goal, a blast from midfielder Andres Iniesta that Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg could only graze with his fingertips.
For the Dutch, the loss is the third in the finals after two crushing defeats in 1974 and 1978. But while past Dutch failures saddened admirers of the beautiful game worldwide, the current Netherlands team is unlikely to garner as much empathy. The Dutch side’s extremely physical style of play shows little resemblance to that of their predecessors.
“It was very tough, very rough,” said Iniesta immediately after the match. “And I think Spain deserved to win this World Cup. It’s something that we will remember. It’s something that we will enjoy and we are very proud.”
Another unlikely winner of Sunday’s encounter is Paul the Octopus, a cephalopod in Germany that for the eighth consecutive time correctly predicted the outcome of a World Cup match.
Spain now holds both the European and world titles after its victory in Vienna two years ago and is only the third team in history to do so. The feat rewards an exceptional generation of Spanish players.
Soccer’s biggest stage will now move to a more traditional locale as the 2014 World Cup will be organized by Brazil, the country with the most World Cup victories. Brazilians will count on home advantage to boost the chances of their side to win a record sixth World Cup. But for now, it is Spain that will savor its very first World Cup trophy for the next four years.
Read more GlobalPost World Cup CoverageUnlike its glorious forebears, this Dutch team has all but abandoned the “Total Football” philosophy where players switch positions seamlessly to promote fluid movement of the ball. Instead, the 2010 Oranje have relied heavily on a few outstanding talents whose outsized egos at times threatened the equilibrium of the team.
Arguably, the Spaniards are the closest thing to the Dutch sides that charmed soccer crowds in the 1970s. Barcelona, a club that has seen several Dutch coaches in recent years, provides much of Spain’s midfield, and Iniesta and Co. favor patiently built attacks over more opportunistic long-range shots.
In contrast to the Dutch team, Spain has shown remarkable unity with super striker David Villa repeatedly coming to the defense of his less effective teammate, Fernando Torres.
The 64th and final match of South Africa’s World Cup was preceded by a 30-minute closing ceremony during which spectators were urged to refrain from blowing their vuvuzelas.
The ceremony was graced by Colombian singer Shakira’s hypnotizing hips and featured a herd of white elephants, hopefully not an indication of the 10 World Cup stadiums’ uncertain future.
In this first African World Cup 15 current African heads of state watched the final, but the one political figure everyone hoped would attend was former South African President Nelson Mandela.
The 91-year-old had skipped the opener following the tragic death of his great-granddaughter, and there were fears that his frail condition would not allow him to make the trip to Soccer City. He did come, however, and many in the crowd saluted him as he rolled onto the pitch alongside wife Graca Machel in a golf cart, the preferred means of transport for his rare public appearances.
On many levels, this 19th World Cup has been a success. Attendance to matches and number of visitors are among the highest in World Cup history, and South Africa has managed to organize the largest sports spectacle with few hiccups — by no means a foregone conclusion when the country was awarded the tournament’s organization in 2004.
“This has been a truly inspiring, moving and uplifting month,” said South African President Jacob Zuma. “Well done, South Africa.”
The smooth organization of the World Cup has indeed instilled a lot of pride in South Africans. Jonathan Boorsteen, a 33-year-old Johannesburg resident with Dutch parents, said he had been impressed by the “world-class” infrastructure South Africa built for the World Cup.
“I’ve been overseas to quite a few countries and from what I’ve seen, this is awesome,” Boorsteen said. “The stadiums overseas are not like this.”
Throughout the tournament, overseas fans have reported overwhelmingly positive experiences. Many said they heard all the horror stories stemming from the country’s high crime rate before coming to South Africa but were won over by the locals’ warm welcome.
Pepe Lopez, a 42-year-old Spanish supporter who has spent his first three weeks in the country with a group of friends, said that the media at home had depicted South Africa as a dangerous place for tourists.
“It isn’t,” Lopez said. “I will come back with my whole family.”
Reflecting perhaps what was at stake for two nations that had never won the World Cup, the first half was marred by rough play and an abundance of dangerous tackles and late challenges. In that department the Netherlands’ Nigel de Jong distinguished himself with a karate-style kick straight to Xabi Alonso’s chest that left the Spanish midfielder out of breath.
In terms of play, the first 45 minutes followed the expected script as Spain dominated possession with successions of short passes and Holland bringing heat on the Spanish defense through Arjen Robben’s dribbles and Wesley Sneijder’s free kicks.
The second half moved up a much higher pace and while Spain retained control of the ball it was the Dutch who came closest to scoring with two breaks from Robben masterfully thwarted by Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Both teams continued to create scoring chances into the extra time, but it was only after Dutch defender John Heitinga was sent off after collecting his second yellow card of the night — out of a total of nine for the Netherlands — that Spain found the extra space it needed.
Just seven minutes after Heitinga left the field, Iniesta found the opening on a pass from substitute Cesc Fabregas.
“I can’t quite believe it yet that I had the opportunity to score that goal that was so important for my team,” Iniesta said.