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World Cup 2010: Spain's stylish play trumps rough Dutch

Whole world watches final, including many US viewers, which bodes well for the sport.

Spain plays Netherlands
Netherlands' midfielder Nigel de Jong (R) fouls Spain's midfielder Xabi Alonso (C) with a kick to the stomach as Netherlands' midfielder Mark van Bommel (L) looks on during the 2010 World Cup football final between the Netherlands and Spain on July 11, 2010 at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg. (Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — We should be grateful that South Africa 2010 turned out to be an alluring celebration of game and country.

Hell, by Sunday the vuvuzelas had begun to sound like late Miles Davis.

The worst fears-of security lapses,of crime waves, of infrastructure woes-never materialized and soccer proved to be the headline drama. There was plenty of drama too and the games — despite the vagaries of a too-bouncy ball and some officiating gaffes — managed not only to kick up the two best teams into the final, but to pit the two best soccer nations never to have won the coveted trophy.

And then, regrettably, the final proved to be something of a clunker, the type of long scoreless grind that American naysayers cite whenever they want to debunk the sport.

That kind of disappointment is hardly uncommon in the biggest sporting contests. The NCAA basketball final is usually scrappy and low scoring and seldom as entertaining as the best early-round games. And just like in boxing, where it is often remarked that styles make fights, styles can dictate soccer games too.

In this case the contrasting styles of the Spanish and Dutch teams yielded a choppy, chippy, rather ugly affair that produced far more colored cards — a Cup final record of 13 yellows (one of which turned red and reduced the Netherlands to 10 men) — than shots on goal.

Which shouldn't be confused with lack of drama. The stakes of the game, the thwarted soccer histories of both nations, assured a high degree of tension as long as the game remained close. So it was plenty tense when the game appeared headed — for the third time in the last five World Cups — to a penalty-kick shootout, an unfortunate climax since it tends to yield goats more often than heroes.

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

But in the waning minutes of overtime, Andres Iniesta, who had been menacing the Dutch goal for most of the second half, took a pass in the penalty area and fired the ball off the outstretched fingertips of the Dutch goalkeeper into the net and the history books.

Spain has been billed as the heir to Brazil's beautiful game, a graceful approach that attacks with short passing combinations and dazzling individual ball skills. But sometimes Spain, for all that dazzle and domination of the ball, seemed heirs to basketball's defunct four-corner
offense. While they passed it neatly around the perimeter, seldom did all that nifty work and possession result in an easy path to a score.

As a result Spain won this World Cup with virtually no margin for error. It became the first team ever to win the crown after losing its first game. And despite its stranglehold on the ball — 63-37 was the ball-control divide with the Dutch — the team scored just eight goals in
seven games.

The final was Spain's fourth successive 1-0 victory (Portugal, Paraguay and Germany were the three previous victims), with all four games scoreless at halftime.

Before the final, the Dutch coach and players had insisted they would brave the Spanish wave and still remain attack-minded. But that didn't exactly prove to be true. Having seen what happened to Germany when it didn't challenge the Spanish midfielders for possession, the Dutch
instead mimicked Paraguay's approach, chasing and pestering them all over the field.

The added wrinkle was that the Dutch went thuggish, chopping down the smaller Spanish players at the point of attack — and counting on the reluctance of the referee to boot anyone from what was ballyhooed as a classic showcase.

The plan almost worked. Though the English ref called 28 fouls on the Netherlands and handed out yellow cards liberally, he spared a Dutch midfielder what appeared an obvious red card — cleats to the chest — early in the game. So the Dutch continued to kick and cleat — and whined when the calls went against them.

Though they didn't muster much of a counterattack, they did spring speedy winger Arjen Robben on a pair of breakaways up the Spanish gut. On the first, Spain keeper and captain Iker Casillas dove the wrong way, but managed to deflect the shot with his trailing foot; on the second, he raced out quickly and smothered the ball at Robben's feet.