The World Cup Calendar, July 11th. Andres Winiesta

During this World Cup Calendar series, we have conquered the 2002 and 2006 tournaments and now, on July the 11th, it is the culmination of the 2010 World Cup. This is a personal victory for me, as it means I no longer need to watch match highlights which involves the arduous task of listening to ten minutes of vuvuzelas! The World Cup in South Africa was an odd affair. It was not a vintage tournament, the poorest World Cup in my memory, yet it still managed to deliver some pretty memorable games. This was true particularly of the final. It was not a classic game, however, it was memorable. This game is notorious for two reasons. Firstly, it was Spain’s first ever World Cup win, and their second major trophy in two years, asserting their dominance as the best side in the world. Secondly, it was the dirtiest World Cup final, possibly even of any competition, that I can recall watching. English referee Howard Webb was certainly kept busy…

Spain crafted the first real chance of the game from a free kick early on. Xavi delivered the ball into the packed penalty box from the right flank. Sergio Ramos evaded his marker, Robin van Persie, to win a header, powering it at goal. The Dutch ‘keeper, Maarten Stekelenburg, pushed it wide. Barcelona defender Gerard Pique reached the ball first, though his shot was saved with ease by Stekelenburg.

Sergio Ramos was again proving a threat for Spain going forward early on. He broke into the box and dribbled round Dirk Kuyt with ease, drilling his shot across the face of goal. Johnny Heitinga turned it over the crossbar. It was a good block, although Dutch hearts would have been in their mouths momentarily as the defender hooked the ball dangerously near his own net.

The Dutch had navigated their way through the tournament by playing some quick, dominating, attacking football. In this final it was apparent that they were happy to let Spain play their tiki-taka football, happy to play on the counter where possible. As a result, they were throwing themselves into tackles, realising that the best way of countering was to intercept loose balls from set pieces.

Robin van Persie picked up the first yellow of the day, crunching Joan Capdevila with a rash slide tackle in the middle of the field. Carlos Puyol was a defender who was never shy of a tackle, and with van Persie laying down a precedent, the Barcelona centre half joined the fun. He took out Arjen Robben from behind in a vicious tackle. Robben had been one of the tournaments outstanding players, therefore it made sense for the Spanish to target him. Mark van Bommel took out Andres Iniesta’s standing leg with a slide tackle 22 minutes in, bringing his former Barca team mate crashing to the ground, leaving him writhing in pain.

Tournaments can be won and lost on the basis of controversial moments, and it is perhaps fitting that the Dutch didn’t win the final that day. Both teams were putting in some ugly tackles, but on minute 28, Nigel de Jong assaulted Xabi Alonso in a tackle that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an MMA arena. The ball bounced high
in the middle of the field and Xabi Alonso ran towards it, aiming to control it with his chest. Nigel de Jong also aspired to win the ball, only he leapt with his boot high. He planted his foot firmly in the chest of Alonso, wiping the Real Madrid midfielder out. Virtually every football fan in the world were screaming for a red card. Howard Webb produced a yellow. The most telling part of it all was de Jong’s reaction. He appeared to thank Webb, acknowledging that he had gotten off easy. One of the world’s best referees had a shocker.

Joris Mathijsen had a glorious chance to give the Netherlands the lead, late into the first half. Arjen Robben passed to van Bommel who was stood at the edge of the box. Van Bommel passed into the box first time, picking out Joris Mathijsen on the edge of the six yard box. Mathijsen fluffed his lines, miskicking the ball and watching in frustration as it trickled out of play.

In the second half Joan Capdevila had a miss almost identical to that of Joris Mathijsen. Xavi whipped a corner into the box that was met by Carlos Puyol. His header proved to be a pass, rather than a shot, finding Capdevila inches from where Mathijsen missed in the first half. Just like Mathijsen, Capdevila missed the ball, falling to his knees in anguish.

Arjen Robben had his head in his hands soon afterwards, appalled at missing a 1v1. A slide tackle in the middle of the park saw the ball bounce between Pique and Puyol. Arjen Robben pounced on the loose ball, using his blistering pace to get ahead. He dribbled towards goal, shooting on the edge of the penalty box. His shot was weak, however, and was stopped by the outstretched legs of Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal.

Spain fired a low cross into the box which should have been intercepted by Johnny Heitinga. The Everton defender got a touch on the ball, but not enough to see it away from danger. If anything, it increased the danger. It took the sting off the ball, allowing David Villa time to tee up his shot. The striker forced Maarten Stekelenburg into a tremendous save to keep the scores level.

Arjen Robben once again had a golden chance to give his country the lead. A high ball caught out the defence, with Carlos Puyol too far back and Gerard Pique too far forward. Robben slipped in between the defenders, stealing the ball as he went. Both centre halves chased him all the way back. Puyol had a hold of his jersey, ensuring that he was being put off. Robben delayed the shot as a result of the Puyol pressure, and held off too long, helpless to Casillas claiming of the football.

The game went to extra time, the second consecutive World Cup Final that this had occurred, and Spain were asserting their dominance. Jesus Navas, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa all had glaring opportunities to gift Spain the lead, all failing to do so.

With ten minutes to go, the Netherlands task was made much harder, as a result of Johnny Heitinga seeing red. This was less controversial that Zidane’s four years previously, but no less deserved. Xavi chipped the ball over the defence to Iniesta. Heitinga put an arm on Iniesta’s shoulder, pulling the midfielder back. It was a harsh yellow card, but with Iniesta through on goal, the second yellow card was justified.

The Dutch had made all three substitutions, and with both their holding midfielders on yellow’s, they feared that the game could get away from them. To the horror of Dutch manager, Bert van Marwijk, his side conceded with less than five minutes to go. Rafael van der Vaart messed up his clearance, passing the ball out to Fabregas. Van der Vaart was on the ground, thus playing Andres Iniesta onside. Fabregas picked out the pass to Iniesta, who’s touch bounced the ball up, allowing him to hammer the ball past Maarten Stekelenburg and into the net. He ran away in celebration, removing his shirt to show a vest which honoured the life of Dani Jarque, a friend of Iniesta and former Espanyol defender, who tragically died of a heart attack the year before.

The final whistle was blown by Howard Webb and the game was over. Spain’s long wait to lift the FIFA World Cup was over and their players were overwhelmed with joy. There were some ugly scenes with a number of Dutch players swarming the referee at full time, but they could hardly have any complaints after such a dirty match. Few could begrudge the Spaniards of their tournament victory. The Netherlands and Germany both played more cutting edge, exciting football, but the Spanish had played some technically perfect passing football during the competition, carrying on their tiki-taka football that had won them Euro 2008. It was disappointing to see the Netherlands play with such an anti-football game plan in the final. With the attacking players at their disposal they should have been more assertive. Their defensive style against Spain’s sideways passing made for some excellent highlights, but an overall poor match. The game was full of talking points, however, and was won by a well taken goal from one of the most technically gifted footballers in the game, as well as one of the nicest men in football, Andres Iniesta.

Tomorrow’s game: July 12th. Brazil v France. 1998.