Seldom can such a great side have had such a tawdry coronation. For three years, Spain has been the best side in Europe, probably the world. It is only the third nation, after West Germany (Euro 1972 and the 1974 World Cup) and France (the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000), to hold European and world titles simultaneously, and, frankly, it deserved better than to seal its triumph Sunday with a scrappy game of 14 bookings. At least after an ugly, unpleasant game, the World Cup had the right winner, the only side in the tournament that was consistently proactive in its play.
A fourth 1-0 win in a row doesn't tell the full story; Spain had none of the control it had possessed in the previous three rounds, as the Netherlands effectively kicked it out of its rhythm. An open extra time gave the game some credit, but this was a match ruined by Dutch brutality. Referee
Although the game quickly degenerated, Spain actually began with the same fluency it had shown against Germany in the semifinal, with
The corollary of Spain's control of possession is the pressure it puts on opponents, something that is not down just to its pressing but the psychological impact of knowing that if you squander possession, you may not see it again for two to three minutes. When Manchester United lost to Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League final, it was notable that certain players grew so tentative that even the simplest 10-yard pass became a trauma. The Dutch, unusually anxious with the ball, seemed to be heading that way, and then suddenly their approach changed, and they became physical to the point of thuggishness.
Spain was clearly sinned against, but there was also a sense that its players didn't help themselves. The Spanish press severely criticized Webb for his liberal approach to Spain's loss to Switzerland in its opening game, and again in the build-up to the final, and there was a sense that Spain almost expected to be kicked out of its stride. Even minor infractions in the early moments provoked howls of Spanish pain, as though its players were determined to draw the referee's attention to the physicality they expected.
And while Spain may claim it was provoked, the most cynical foul of the night was
As Spain lost the control that it so craves, chances came at both ends. The game, though, edged Spain's way with the arrival of
Notably in extra time, every significant opportunity fell Spain's way as the Dutch, like Germany, Paraguay and Portugal before them, were eventually worn down. The arrival of
The pressure was telling, punctuated with the dismissal of Heitinga for a cynical tug on Iniesta in the 109th minute. Van Bommel dropped into the back four, but with De Jong having gone off for
It was an ugly winner after an ugly game, but Spain was a deserved winner, aesthetically and morally.