The game had a cracking start, with Sergio Ramos narrowly missing a header in the 5th minute. Unfortunately, that proved to be the highlight of a half that was at best lackluster and at worst downright boring. Ramos was probably the most dangerous player during the first 45 minutes, consistently getting forward as he did in the game against Germany. Despite Ramos' adventurous runs down the wing, the game had no flow. Midfield destroyers, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, both received yellow cards for harsh tackles before the game hit the half-hour mark. Nigel De Jong was lucky to not receive red a card for his karate kick to Xabi Alonso's chest. As in virtually all their games, Spain held the ball for more of the 1st half than the Dutch. They passed the ball well, but just couldn't break down the Dutch defense. Mercifully, half-time came with the promise of tactical changes. Sadly, those changes did not come and the second half was more brutal than the first.
While there were more goal-scoring chances in the second half, the tackling got harder and referee Howard Webb handed out more yellow cards. Some of the cards were deserved, some of them were harsh. The Dutch chose to play a cynical style, fouling the Spanish midfield in an attempt to break-up their passing and possession. The two clearest chances were from Arjen Robben and David Villa. Robben had a break away, a result of a brilliant pass by Wesley Sneijder, stopped on a miraculous save by Iker Casillas. Villa had an open shot that forced Maarten Stekelenburg to make an equally brilliant save. The Dutch looked much more dangerous after Robben replaced the ineffective Robin Van Persie at the top of the Dutch attack. As the game got closer to full time it became apparent that we were headed for extra time. In extra time there were some chances, with Robben and Cesc Fábregas looking the most dangerous. Anyone watching the match knew that a red card was going to appear at some point. That card was given to John Heitinga following a crude tackle on Iniesta. It was Heitinga's second yellow card and left the Dutch scrambling with only 10 men to finish the remaining 11 minutes.
Ultimately, it was a typical Spanish play that led to the game winning goal. Fábregas controlled a cross by Fernando Torres and played it to an open Andrés Iniesta. Iniesta was kept onside by Rafael Van der Vaart who had dived in an effort to stop Torres' cross. Iniesta made no mistake, slotting the ball past a diving Stekelenburg. To Stekelenburg's credit, he got a hand on the shot but was unable to prevent it from hitting the net. With that shot, the result was all but sealed as the Dutch had a mere 3 minutes and any injury time to score the leveler. During that period the Dutch pressed, but were unable to get any true chances. After 3 minutes of injury time, referee Howard Webb blew the whistle ending an ugly match for him and both teams.
The Dutch really have nobody to blame but themselves for the loss. The played a negative style and never seemed interested in attacking (with the exception of Arjen Robben). Perhaps the best criticism I've read of the Dutch style was from Jonathan Wilson of Sports Illustrated. In his column on the final he wrote, "Referee Howard Webb was booed by the crowd and will no doubt be harangued by pundits, but the greatest share of the blame belongs to the Netherlands and its negativity. The goodwill built up by years of attractive football was severely depleted by 120 sorry minutes. A more defensive approach is one thing; borderline anti-football is something else."
After watching the entire game, here are some facts/observations:
- Maarten Stekelenburg is better than I thought. He was massive in this game, stopping virtually ever shot that came his way. He made a great effort on the Spanish goal and kept the Dutch in the game. This game showed that he is a worthy successor to Edwin Van Der Sar.
- Spain had several wasted chances. Ramos missed two open headers. Fabregas wasted a breakaway attempt and another shot that came at the end of a marauding run through the Dutch center. Villa had his shot saved by Stekelenburg and several Spanish free kicks were put either wide or over the net.
- The Netherlands (particularly Arjen Robben) had several wasted chances as well. Robben could have chipped Casillas on his breakaway but instead tried a driven shot that Casillas caught with his outstretched leg.
- The Dutch played intentionally rough soccer according to defender Gregory Van Der Wiel, "Yes, we did that intentionally. It was not the idea to let Spain play soccer comfortably. They can play fantastic soccer, and if you let them, you doom yourself. We tried to apply pressure wherever we could and tried to make the game hard on Spain." While this makes sense, it led to a game that never really had the flow many had hoped to see. It also proved that any vestige of Total Football is gone from the Dutch team. Its death will be mourned by fans of the beautiful game.
- The goal, in the 116th minute, led to Spain's 4th straight 1-0 victory and their 5th 1 goal victory of the tournament.
- Spain scored only 8 goals in winning the tournament, easily the fewest for any World Cup winner. The previous record was 11, shared by three teams: Italy (1934 in 4 games), England (1966 in 6 games) and Brazil (1994 in 7 games).
- The Dutch have now lost 3 World Cup finals (1974, 1978, 2010). The only team to have finished 2nd more often are the Germans (1966, 1982, 1986, 2002).
- The Dutch have appeared in the most World Cup finals without winning one. The only other teams to appear in multiple finals without a win are Hungary (1938, 1954) and Czechoslovakia (1934 and 1962).
As for the awards handed out following the game, I can't really argue with any of them. Casillas was the best goalkeeper of the tournament. While Stekelenburg played better than I expected, Casillas came up huge in the games that mattered most. Thomas Müller won both the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player award. The Golden Boot is awarded o the player that scored the most goals in the tournament. While Müller tied with Diego Forlan, Wesley Sneijder, and David Villa for the most goals (5), Müller won the award due to his three assists (the first tie-breaker). Forlan shouldn't be too upset at not winning the Golden Boot, as he won the Golden Ball as the tournament's MVP. Forlan is deserving of this award, despite playing for the 4th place team. Forlan was classy throughout the tournament. Take Forlan off the team and Uruguay wouldn't have even made it out of the first round.
In the end, this World Cup was compelling. The officiating was questionable and perhaps will spur FIFA to make some changes (INSTANT REPLAY PLEASE!). New stars emerged (Müller, Mesut Özil, Asamoah Gyan, Siphiwe Tshabalala) and veterans rose to new heights (Forlan, Luis Suárez, Stekelenburg). Here's to World Cup 2010! Only 1432 more days until kick-off.