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World Cup final review: Spain deserving winners of a disappointing tournament

Of course, there is no reason that a World Cup final should be the best game of the tournament. Quite the opposite, in fact, with so much at stake. But all football fans hope for at least a good and fair match, one befitting of the showpiece game of the biggest event in world sport. For a variety of reasons history suggest we rarely get much of a spectacle. The right team – Spain – won on the night, but it was for long periods a grim match in keeping with a tournament which has disappointed far more often than it has thrilled.

Yellow is the colour, but Spain deserved to win

Goal-scorer Andrés Iniesta

In a game which featured as many bookings – Holland‘s John Heitinga sent off, twelve others cautioned – as it did genuine chances, Andrés Iniesta provided the decisive intervention four minutes from the end of extra time. Substitute Fernando Torres‘ cross was half-cleared to fellow sub Cesc Fabregas, who turned a neat ball directly into the path of Iniesta, who finished smartly with his right foot.

Although both sides had chances to clinch the game in the second half of normal time and in extra time, few neutrals would dispute that Spain were the more deserving winners. While never quite at their fluid, Euro 2008-winning best in this tournament, they have consistently sought to play good football combined with an obdurate defence and the ability to eke out wins in tight matches – they won all four knockout games 1-0.

The best tackle of the World Cup final?

This 2010 Holland side, on the other hand, is as workmanlike and physical as their 1974/1978 ‘Total Football’ forebears were skilful and elegant. Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel might on another night have seen red for challenges which scarred both the match itself and the recipient of the foul. And while I have nothing against a side looking to physically impose themselves within the rules of the game, what Holland sought to do to Spain last night did not make for an edifying spectacle, as they repeatedly tested both the laws of the game and referee Howard Webb‘s patience.

In fact, the best and cleanest tackle seen last night was probably the one made before kickoff, when a ‘fan’ ran onto the pitch towards the World Cup trophy itself, only to be collared at the last moment by a security guard. It was a great tackle: well-timed, controlled and he stayed on his feet …

Holland coach Bert van Marwijk heavily criticised Webb after the game, largely on the basis of missing what should clearly have been a Dutch corner in the build-up to the winning goal (although he did concede Spain had been the better side):

I don’t think the referee controlled the match well. Both sides committed fouls. That may be regrettable for a final. But the best team won the match.

Actually, Bert, from what I saw one team set out with a deliberate policy of roughing up the opposition to disrupt their rhythm, and the other team simply reacted in kind almost out of self-defence.

In reality, Webb did not make any bookings which weren’t thoroughly warranted, and on another day the game could easily have finished ten versus eight, with van Bommel, de Jong and Iniesta all somewhat fortunate not to see red. Arguably, an early sending off might have quelled a game which started out niggly and deteriorated further as it progressed, but this was one of those situations where a referee is damned if does (ruining the game by sending a player off) and damned if he doesn’t (too lenient, losing control).

But, as BBC commentator Jacqui Oatley so succinctly tweeted:

Holland slating Howard Webb is like having a go at a policeman who books you for speeding when he could’ve done you for drink driving.

And BBC pundit Lee Dixon added that,one way or another, justice had been done:

In the cold light of day we might find that Howard Webb has made a mistake in allowing the winning goal. But let’s be honest, the right team won and the best player on the pitch scored it. That’s got to be justice, hasn’t it?

Holland were unarguably the technically inferior side, and the brand of football they played throughout this tournament has been predominantly negative. Last night, Robin van Persie cut a lonely, frustrated figure up front, while Dirk Kuyt and top scorer Wesley Sneijder were peripheral figures. Only Arjen Robben made an impression, but he wasted Holland’s best chances of the game, and continued to frustrate with his histrionics.

Spain, despite benching Arsenal captain Fabregas and the clearly-injured Torres, were the better, deeper squad. It was somehow fitting that both these players, frustrated by their limited playing time at this World Cup, should combine to set up Iniesta’s winner. It was the one moment in the entire match where class was truly brought to bear.

A disappointing tournament

And so a largely disappointing World Cup has come to an end. South Africa have been good hosts, adding a splash of welcome colour – and a lot of less welcome noise! – to proceedings. Ticketing arrangements have been shambolic – and that’s before we even consider the Robbie Earle fiasco – with many games no more than two-thirds full. And while there was something to cheer in the triumph of new faces (Ghana, Slovakia) succeeding at the expense of some of the game’s traditional powers (Italy, France), it was a tournament where, as a rule, the bigger the game – and the higher the expectation – the worse it was, with Brazil versus Portugal being the most glaring and abject example.

Oh, and England were every bit as bad as we feared they might be. But that’s nothing new.

It has been a poor tournament for many of the mega-stars of the global game – Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Kaká, even Lionel Messi to a degree – and for attacking players in general, with just 31% of all shots being on target. Goalkeepers too will wake up screaming with nightmares after having had to face the unpredictable wobbling, dipping and swerving of the Jabulani ball. And we have had too many clear-cut incidents where the application of simple technology would have prevented miscarriages of justice (or, in the case of Frank Lampard‘s ghost goal, merely prolonged the agony).

The World Cup remains an amazing global gathering and a celebration of the most popular sport on the planet, and I still have high hopes for Brazil 2014. But to me the last month feels a little like FIFA organised the world’s biggest party, then forgot to bring any presents. A shame. A real shame.

The final in numbers:

0-0 – This was only the second World Cup final to finish goalless after 90 minutes (1994: Brazil beat Italy on penalties).

35.5% – Only 11 of 31 shots in the final were on target, reflecting the difficulties attacking players have faced from the combination of high altitude and the controversial Jabulani ball.

13 – Thirteen players were cautioned during the game – eight Dutchmen (including John Heitinga, who was sent off for a second yellow card) and five Spaniards.

4Holland have committed the most fouls in four of the last seven World Cups in which they have played, including 2010.

23 – Holland earned 23 yellow cards during the tournament, the joint-highest ever at a World Cup (Argentina, 1990).

1-0Spain won all four of their games in the knockout phase of the tournament with the only goal of the game. None of these four goals came in the first half of matches.

3 – Spain have become the third side to be champions of both Europe and the world (after West Germany and France).

8 – Number of goals scored by Spain, the lowest total ever by a World Cup winner.

1 – Spain are the first team to win the World Cup having lost their opening game …

1 – … And also the first European team to win the World Cup outside Europe.

44 – Spain became the first country to win the World Cup final while wearing their change strip since England in 1966.

54 – Although Spain’s Carlos Marchena did not play in the final, he has set a new world record during the tournament by going undefeated in his last 54 international appearances.

1Howard Webb is the first referee ever to take charge of a Champions League final and a World Cup final in the same year.

(Some statistics courtesy of @optajean, @optajoao, @optajoe and @castrolfootball.)

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

4 Responses to World Cup final review: Spain deserving winners of a disappointing tournament

  1. Tse Ndex says:

    Your average for spectator capacity is too ungenerous. There were empty seats yes, but the minimums were over 75% full for sure. FIFA over allocated tickets to foreign Associations on susspecting locals will not watch the matches. Foreign associations failed to sell their allocations becoz of the obvious early sceptisms of crime. Last minute release of tickets to locals did not help.

    • Tim says:

      I’m pretty sure I saw some official attendance figures that showed some of the early group phase games were only 2/3rds full. Anyway, the exact number isn’t important. Suffice to say that a lot of group games weren’t anywhere near sold out.

      The point I wanted to make is that it was just a real shame that FIFA made such a mess of selling the tickets, and that many travelling fans were put off by exorbitantly-priced travel packages. It was such a great chance to get real South African fans into the games, and it was under-exploited. For all that FIFA talk about promoting and expanding the game in new territories, it looks to me like everything they do comes back to one basic motivation: money. And that is very sad.

  2. Great overview. While you show your opinions, I find most were justified and on the mark!

    • Tim says:

      Funnily enough, I was genuinely neutral about the final. (One Arsenal player per side, perfectly balanced!) But the idealist in me was just so disappointed with the way the Dutch played, and even more aghast at the way both the players and the fans treated referee Webb (who I don’t like at all) after the final whistle. Van Bommel was straight in his face, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t just asking him what time it was. And the Dutch fans booed the officials as they were presented with their medals. Yes, they made a mistake at a critical time, but other than that I thought the game was well officiated despite the best efforts of both sides (but mostly the Dutch) to start a minor war.

      I grew up watching the Dutch sides of the 70s and 80s, and I find this current version – despite the presence of some coruscating attacking talent like van Persie, Sneijder and Robben – something of a disgrace to that memory. I guess that makes me a sentimental, middle-aged fool …

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