At the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, Spain were dirty, the Netherlands thuggish and Howard Webb struggled to cope with it all though I thought he did as well as any ref could given two sets of players intent on ending the game with as few on the field as laws permit.
Tonight we had niggles rather than the brutality of 2010, a crushing defeat for the cup holders Spain and display of refereeing incompetence to rival that of Yuichi Nishimura in Brazil vs Croatia – yes, I know Jeremy Robson suggested worse – but ultimately, on this occasion, of no assistance to the beneficiaries.
Spain were the better side for much of the first half and deservedly went ahead, though the circumstances were dishonourable.
Diego Costa dived, having turned his man, Stefan de Vrij, rather deftly on the left but choosing, instead of shooting, to push his leg into his opponent’s before indulging in the inevitable amateur dramatics.
It won Spain a penalty – Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson inexplicably congratulating the Italian ref, Nicola Rizzoli, on his powers of observation – and Xabio Alonso converted. Costa, incidentally was born in Brazil and this fact gave rise to some impudent tweets about a supposed national fondness for diving.
But the Dutch recovered in some style, a combination of their scintillating play and a nightmarish display by the Spanish defence, and 5-1 could easily have been 7-1. From struggling for possession early in the game, the Netherlands took an emphatic grip that surely suggests serious contenders for the trophy.
Spare a thought for the Spanish keeper, Iker Casillas who will not sleep well tonight. For the crucial third Dutch goal, bundled in by Man Utd’s new signing Louis van Gaal, he was arguably impeded by Robin van Persie and another Dutchman.
These were six-yard-box tactics so reminiscent of Tony Pulis’s way at Stoke City that even Pulis moaned. “Robin van Persie has fouled the goalkeeper,” he spluttered at the BBC website. “The referee will take some criticism for this and Spain have been very hard done by. If van Gaal gets luck like this at Manchester United the fans will be delighted. How will Spain react?” Well, the reaction consisted of poor Iker making such a hash of a backpass that van Persie dispossessed him with ease and scored a fourth.
The second and fifth involved great ball play and finishes by Arjen Robben. Before this second-half rampage, van Persie had scored the first-half equaliser, sending a spectacular floating header beyond our Iker’s reach. At least he produced two world-class saves in quick succession late on to stop five becoming six.
As for Costa, he built on his first-half antics by stupidly butted Bruno Martins Indi in the Netherlands penalty area. It was the mildest of butts, and perhaps did not fully justify the Dutch defender’s resulting histrionics, but even a mild butt is a red card offence.
And the diving? As someone – in fact a Texan called Nick Hall who has played and reffed – put it at Facebook, it is “bull****, and threatens to ruin the game”. My response to Nick: “Fred is just a high-profile example of something the Croatian coach admitted all players would also try. Cheating plain and simple and it will go on until exemplary punishment follows, using post-match video evidence as well as on-the-spot sanction.”
But bravo the Netherlands. This was a mighty performance.