By Shane Thomas
SPAIN 1 - 0 HOLLAND (a.e.t)
In what was one of the worst World Cup finals of modern times, Spain wrote themselves into football history by adding the game's richest prize to their European title won two years previously.
In a match where Holland tried to drag 'the beautiful game' into the gutter, football was saved from descending into the pits of hell by a Spanish angel, Andres Iniesta, who struck with five minutes of extra-time remaining to send his country into rapturous joy.
But the overriding feeling of the match will sadly be the sickening tactics employed by Holland, which breached the rules of the game and any reasonable codes of human decency. After an opening fifteen minute spell in which Spain were dominant, with Sergio Ramos a constant threat and Xavi Hernandez operating the 'passing carousel' that the Iberians do better than anybody, Holland decided that rather than slowing the carousel down or sticking a spanner in the mechanism, they were going to take a sledgehammer to it and anyone that got harmed in the process was acceptable collateral damage.
And from the second that Mark Van Bommel crudely fouled Iniesta, Holland actively decided that if they couldn't get their boots on the ball, then they would instead get them on the legs of the Spanish players - and in the case of Nigel De Jong, the chest of Xabi Alonso. This was only exacerbated by the reluctance of referee Howard Webb to take stern action on the Dutch. I empathise to an extent with Webb, as while he dished out more yellow cards than ever before seen in a World Cup final, he eschewed brandishing an early red card which probably would have been an effective deterrent to Holland's philistine-like tackling. I understand that the last thing Webb wanted to be was the story when all was said and done, but taking the carrot rather than the stick approach to proceedings only ensured that he did became a major player in the narrative of the contest; the one thing he was clearly desperate to avoid. He might as well have run around the pitch with a banner declaring, 'Give Peace A Chance'. It did about as much good as the John Lennon song of the same name did in preventing the Vietnam War.
But Webb is not the chief culprit here. After discovering in the game's early exchanges that they were the technical inferiors of the Spanish, the Dutch turned into a bunch of orange-clad thugs. Football is a fast paced game and foul tackles are inevitable. But the fouls in this game were not a by-product of Holland's desire to regain possession. It was their endgame. Like a bully who picks on the smaller kids at school, Holland systematically tried to kick Spain into submission.
While Spain may be a lithe and relatively diminutive team, they have heart and courage in abundance. And don't mistake courage for tough tackling and winning a lot of aerial headers. Courage is measured by those who commit to a certain way of playing in spite of the knowledge that it will result in physical discomfort. Spain didn't shrink in the face of Holland's assault. They continued to pass and move when in possession. Every time a Spaniard got kicked, he got straight back up and demanded the ball so he could do the same again. That's true courage.
Spain's coach Vicente Del Bosque made a pivotal substitution in the second half, taking Pedro Rodriguez off for Sevilla's Jesus Navas. Navas made an instant impact and was the first to release the game from the purgatory that Holland had placed it under. The likes of Xavi and Iniesta followed suit and while the Netherlands had chances on the counter - Arjen Robben denied twice by his focus failing him and an inspired Iker Casillas - Spain began to look more and more dangerous. David Villa should have scored with a chance that was cleared off the line by Johnny Heitinga (who was astoundingly the only player to see red during the match) while Ramos missed a free header from inside the penalty box.
With Spain seizing back the initiative, the game went into extra time and Del Bosque capitalised by sending on Cesc Fabregas. The Arsenal man (who knows for how much longer) was a constant threat and should have scored at least once after threatening the Netherlands goal twice.
But he made a crucial contribtion in the game's deciding moment. After Eljiro Elia was fouled for Holland, Webb opted not to give the free-kick and Spain countered. After a glorious flick from Iniesta set his team-mates on their way he darted into the space vacated by the now red-carded Heitinga. Substitute Fernando Torres misplaced his pass, but the ball dropped to Fabregas. He must have been sorely tempted to shoot, but he showed his game maturity by playing Iniesta through on goal. The Catalan set himself before lashing the ball past Maarten Stekelenburg to secure Spain's first ever World Cup triumph.
There were two things to savour about the goal. First, the identity of the goalscorer. Iniesta had a magnificent match and it was appropriate that he should have been the deciding factor. Also, while the goal should have been prohibited by the foul on Elia a minute before, is there anyone not from Holland who has any empathy for them? It seemed that the football gods had seen enough and dished out their own sporting karma in a deliciously caustic manner.
And the conduct of some of the Dutch players after the final whistle only crystallised their lack of character. They harangued Webb, and Mark Van Bommel even had the temerity to put his hands on the Sheffield official. While Webb did not have a great game, Van Bommel's behaviour was despicable. But then, that sums the man up. He is a disgrace to the sport and I sincerely hope that his career comes to a premature end from someone dishing out what he has been doing to opposing players all his career. Maybe he should feature in the UFC octagon and see how much he likes having lumps kicked out of him.
There is a genuine case for arguing that Holland can no longer be declared a great footballing nation. From a land which brought us the likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten & Dennis Bergkamp, the display shown by this current crop of Dutch players has brought shame on their country's football. I'm only relieved that the great Rinus Michels is no longer with us to have witnessed last night's savagery.
It's always said that the best way to beat a bully is to stand up to them. Well Spain stood tall and proud. And whenever the bully tried to intimidate them, they wouldn't budge an inch. Rather than a football match, Holland turned the World Cup final into one of those sub-standard action films from the 1980's. I guess the Holland team don't know their Hollywood history. In those kinds of films the good guys always win.
Last night was a victory for football's good guys
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