JOHANNESBURG -- For all the controversy and the perceived injustices, for all the bad fouls and dubious decisions, for all the aesthetic/ideological debates about Spain being boring and the Dutch being nasty (or vice versa, if you will), it came down to this:
"You can't win the World Cup without scoring a goal in the final. They did, that's why they're deserved world champions."
That was Netherlands defender Joris Mathijsen's take on a night high on drama and low on football, and it was impossible to argue with it. All the dejected Dutch players who stopped to talk to the press after their 1-0 loss conceded as much.
"Of course," Eljero Elia shrugged when asked whether Spain had been the superior side.
"We didn't play badly but not well enough," said Rafael van der Vaart.
"The better team won," added coach Bert van Marwijk.
"You have to take your chances, that's all," said Nigel de Jong, the Manchester City midfielder who had been lucky to see the end of the game after a kung-fu kick against Xabi Alonso early.
Mathijsen went out of his way to congratulate the Spanish.
"Please write this down," he told SI.com, "we didn't lose because of all the bad decisions from the referee but because Spain scored a goal and deservedly won."
But knowing that they lost to the better team was of little consolation to the Elftal. They probably knew that before, and that they could win only by containing the Spanish threat and making the most out of a rare opportunity on the counter or after a dead-ball situation. They nearly did so, of course, playing a smart if fairly ugly mixture of risky pressing, some downright cynical fouling and heroic last-ditch defending. As professional footballers, they have experienced plenty of games when the underdog managed to succeed against the odds in similar fashion without a need to apologize.
That's how they beat Brazil in the quarterfinals, after all. Spain was clearly the best team on Sunday, too, but the best team often doesn't win, especially if the score is still tied after 115 minutes of an attritional battle. All that was missing for orange dreams to come true was the goal winger Arjen Robben could or perhaps should have scored when he twice bore down on Iker Casillas in the second half.
"Our positioning was good at the back, we dealt well with them, and we had the opportunities," lamented De Jong.
"We were so close, so close, I still can't believe we didn't do it," said Mathijsen. "Once we were down to 10 man [after the red card for John Heitinga], we tried to reach the penalty shootout because we felt very confident. And then something like that happens with three minutes to go."
Mathijsen was referring to the few seconds before Andres Iniesta's goal won the trophy for the Spanish. A Dutch free kick had taken a clear deflection off Cesc Fabregas, but somehow referee Howard Webb failed to award a corner. Spain scored a few seconds later in the ensuing attack.
"Eighty million people all over the world saw it was corner, only the ref and his assistants didn't see it," said de Jong. "I don't know how that's possible."
Elia felt that the Netherlands had also been unlucky that Carlos Puyol hadn't been sent off for his tug on Robben and that Iniesta's retaliation against van Bommel off the ball had not been sanctioned by the ref.
"From the first minute, we felt that [Webb] was against us," said Wesley Sneijder.
But then again, the Spanish probably felt the same. It was that sort of game.
"Still, I think we can hold our heads up high and be proud of what he have achieved," said Sneijder, the Internazionale midfielder who missed out on a historic quadruple of Champions League, Serie A and Italian Cup titles and a World Cup medal.
"I don't know when the moment will come but it will come," said Mathijsen. "We will eventually feel happy about coming this far. But not tonight. Tonight, we're hurting."
Robben, in particular, will have to learn to live with a massive sense of regret, and the rest of the team will forever wonder why it never quite fulfilled its potential at this World Cup, despite all the wins. For once, the Dutch will not be remembered as gallant losers but as the team that conspired to steal the World Cup from its rightful owners and nearly got away with it. It's a new sensation for the Dutch, an ample reflection of their new self-awareness as a team with obvious limitations.
You might say it's progress, of some sort. But it won't feel that way in Amsterdam on Sunday night.