So SPAIN are top of the world, winners of the 2010 World Cup after at one stage looking more like heading home in disarray. But South Africa confounded so many people with the way it handled the event – think back to all those warnings, and not just from tabloid newspapers, of the likely security headaches – that it deserved to host a better final than the lame, petulant affair mustered by Spain and the Netherlands. Yet Spain generally played the better football, and triumphed with a late, late winner from Iniesta. The Dutch claimed injustice, a missed offside, but deserved nothing better after their cynical, ill-tempered display …
As 90 and then 120 minutes approached, it was clear we going to need one of three things to produce a 2010 World Cup winner without the entertaining absurdity of penalties: a moment of magic, a calamitous error or the conversion of two or three of the yellows to reds, allowing the numerically weakened team to be overrun. That applied to either side, though Holland’s staggering 10 yellows finally bringing one red (Heitinger) made the Spanish, on four yellows, look almost well behaved.
It didn’t happen. Why should it, after a fairly dull final?
But on 116 minutes, Andres Iniesta drove home a controversial winner – there had been an offside?= in the build-up – and Spain had won it.
It wasn’t magical, there was no calamity so to speak and the Netherlands had not quite conceded enough cards to be overrun, though they finished with 10 men and could have had fewer left on the field.
The first half had brought reminders, briefly, of the best and often of the worst of the tournament as a whole.
Spain started as if they might get a hatful, cruising past Dutch defenders and creating two or three reasonable chances in the opening minutes, a great save by Stekelenburg saving the Netherlands once, David Villa’s slight misjudgement of his volley saving them again.
Then the Dutch gradually gained a grip, creating relatively little but making the earlier Spanish dominance little more than a memory.
The pace slowed and the action became considerably less interesting. Suddenly, all the moments of note concerned tackles, theatrics and the colour of ensuing cards.
Some of the challenges, and more so those by the Dutch, were at best reckless, at worst hideous.
The spectacle of Spanish players surrounding Howard Webb, demanding red cards each time a colleague went down with the usual unmanly flourish, was unedifying to say the least. But since Mark van Bommel was one of the casualties of this process (seeing yellow), and is no stranger to the art of intimidating refs on when an opponent should be sent off, I’d call that a draw. Dutch players go down just as easily, and roll just as many times in “agony”, as anyone else, Spaniards included.
It is fair to say that Nigel de Jong might have seen red for his raised boot into the chest of Xabi Alonso (no, Guy Mowbray at BBC 5 Live, it was not a karate kick but an unwise aerial challenge).
But I give Webb absolute credit for trying to distinguish between real intent, truly dangerous play and the absurd play-acting of millionaire brats – and for giving both sides at least a sporting chance of getting through the game without a dismissal. In the end, it was not remotely his fault that they couldn’t.
The French TV commentary team, which included Arsène Wenger (and which has done a pretty good job throughout) wanted red for de Jong. But they’d wanted red for van Bommel, too, and you have to say that this match would have been eight-a-side had TF1 got its way. Mind, the sheer number of yellows, almost all justified so far as I could tell, made it likely TF1 would win out anyway.
I kept thinking of Mrs Howard Webb’s comment, faithfully repeated in my local paper in the south of France:
I don’t know how he does it. He can’t take charge of his own children. I don’t know how he manages it on a football pitch.
And Mr Howard Webb’s riposte:
I shall speak to my wife when I get home! But I’m sure she was joking – our children are very well brought up.
And so it continued in the second half, Webb doing his best – generally pretty well – to keep this bunch of spoilt children under some kind of control.
Spain played the better football, with subtler passing and greater flair. But both sides had chances to settle the game and the Dutch had the better of them, Arjen Robben’s one-on-one producing a terrific stop by Casillas.
Had it gone in, and the Netherlands won, I would have been bitterly disappoint that such an undisciplined performance, an utter rejection of Holland’s traditional footballing elegance, had held sway. Spain don’t get three cheers from Salut! Sunderland tonight, but it is right that they got the first World Cup in their history.