Spain team earns it the hard way

Spain were deserving 1-0 winners in extra time at the 2010 FIFA World Cup final at Soccer City in Johannesburg. Andrés Iniesta scored a goal that befitted the Spanish style, one that emphasized technique and a cerebral approach to the beautiful game.

Though Spain scored only eight goals in their seven World Cup matches, their ball possession and combination-oriented approach triumphed over a Holland side that abandoned their “Total Football” heritage for a more pragmatic, 21st-century, fitness-oriented way of playing.

Thus, anyone hoping for a flowing festival of skillful soccer would be disappointed for long spells of this final. We saw flashes of brilliance from both teams, but it was clear that the Dutch knew they were the less-skilled team man-for-man and were intent on doing more of the destroying, as evidenced by the World Cup final record 14 yellow cards. Forty-seven fouls (28 committed by the Dutch) is a high total for two such technically gifted teams, but with so much at stake and the Spanish so dominating possession versus the Germans in their semifinal win it was always going to be this way in the final.

Both teams worked extremely hard to win the ball back in the opening quarter of an hour at Soccer City. Holland was right up in the Spain players’ shirts in the midfield, and the likes of Spain’s Pedro hardly had a touch. Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, the prime attacking threats for the Dutch, were hardly on the ball either. Still, the Spaniards did string together some of their trademark passing combinations in a rhythm both pleasing to the eye and troubling to opposing defenders.

The first real Spanish attacking threat was Sergio Ramos’ powerful header off Xavi’s 5th-minute free kick that forced a great save from Maarten Stekelenburg. In the 11th minute, Ramos skinned Dirk Kuyt in the box to drive a low, hard cross into the Holland goalmouth but it was cleared over the line for a corner.

The fact that Spain central defender Carlos Puyol and Netherlands tough man Mark Van Bommel were both booked by Howard Webb before the midway point of the first half was an attempt by the English referee to take some of the sting out of what was already becoming a mean-tempered game. The hope was that the skill players would have more room to roam, though that never really came to pass in this contest.

Netherlands central midfielder Nigel De Jong had to consider himself lucky to have not been thrown out of the game by Webb after his studs-up karate kick into the sternum of Spanish midfield orchestrator Xavi Alonso in the 28th minute.

No team is fit enough to sustain hurried defensive pressure for 90 minutes so the Netherlands predictably did drop off a bit more as the first half wore on. But they were still picking up good spots and tackling with a bite that bordered on nastiness. On the rare occasions when the Dutch did allow space, such as in the 38th minute when Pedro got free to unleash a long-range blast off target after a 1 v 4 dribble run, Spain looked dangerous.

It was not a great game for the purists through the opening 45 minutes, and the match was crying out for a goal by either team just to open things up. The Dutch went close twice right before halftime, including a great bid by Robben, but the teams went into the halftime interval tied 0-0.

The field opened up a bit more in the opening minutes of the second half, with Holland spurning a couple of opportunities after uncharacteristic Spanish giveaways from offline passes straight back to their opponents.

Webb, who been right on (other than the shout for the red card on De Jong), strangely booked Giovanni von Bronckhorst for an innocuous tug on Sergio Ramos. Moments later, Webb got sold a bill of goods by David Villa, who went down as if hacked by a machete as John Heitinga came in late on him but not hard enough to warrant a card.

A potential game-winning moment came in the 62nd minute when Sneijder released Robben with a dagger ball out of midfield for a 1-on-1 with the goalkeeper. Spain’s Iker Casillas came off his line and came up big with a save off the heel of his boot. Robben should have scored with it looking unlikely that the Netherlands would get another such chance again in the game.

As the match moved into the 70th minute, substitute Jesús Navas set up Villa for a shot that Heitenga just barely blocked in the goalmouth. Spain ware not dominant during this passage of play, though they still had more of the ball and Navas was starting to really have his way with Dutch fullback Giovanni Van Bronckhorst (playing his final game as a pro) down Spain’s right wing.

With 15 minutes to go in regulation, all the computer-generated touch charts showed the Spain’s midfielders -- Xavi, Xavi Alonso and Sergio Busquets -- dominating possession over the course of the game.

In the 77th minute, a signature Spanish combination up the middle of the park led to a corner kick. Again, Sergio Ramos could have been the hero, but he sent a free header high over the crossbar and the game remained deadlocked at 0-0. The sour nature of the match also continued when Iniesta and Van Bommel got tangled up on a tit-for-tat retaliation sequence.

Robben did get another glowing breakaway chance with the Dutch playing mostly to counterattack late in the game. Though Robben could have earned a penalty kick and probably gotten Puyol red-carded if he’d gone down in the box, he elected to keep his feet at the end of his dribble run and saw Casillas steal the ball off of his shoelaces.

At this point, despite their team having 60 percent-plus of the possession and several great chances to score in regulation time, the Spanish players had to know they were fortunate to not have seen Robben bury at least one of his two big chances as the teams moved into 30 minutes of extra time.

In the second minute of the first extra time period, Spain had a shout for a penalty when Xavi appeared to go down under a challenge from Heitenga. Replays confirmed, however, that Webb correctly elected to not call a foul on the play.

In the 95th minute, Spanish sub Cesc Fabergas got clean through on Stekelenburg. This time it was the Dutch keeper who made a huge foot save to keep the score knotted at 0-0. Shortly thereafter, both Iniesta and Navas had good scoring chances and Spain was clearly the more dangerous attacking side in overtime.

Some will say it was an audacious move for Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque to pull off his leading scorer, Villa, at the start of the second period of extra time in favor of out-of-form striker Fernando Torres. Torres was, of course, the goal-scoring hero in the Euro 2008 final and he scores prolifically at club level for Liverpool, but hasn’t been himself in this tournament coming off of knee surgery this past spring. But the move would pay off just minutes later.

And with all the yellow cards it was almost inevitable that someone in an orange shirt was going to pick up a second one, and it turned out to be Heitinga, who received that dubious distinction in the 109th minute after he hauled down Iniesta on the back end of a well-worked move triggered by Xavi.

Iniesta, a big part of this Barcelona-led skill movement in the Spanish national team setup, took his 116th-minute chance with aplomb after a Dutch giveaway led to a bouncing, short Fabergas setup pass from the top of the penalty area. Iniesta let the ball settle before smashing it home powerfully past Stekelenburg, who just got a hand to the shot but had very little chance to save it.

Though the goal was mostly Iniesta and Fabergas’ doing, it wouldn’t have happened if Torres hadn’t sent his diagonal cross to the top of the Dutch area. Del Bosque’s substitution looked like a savvy one as a result (though Torres did go down with a leg injury late in extra time).

In the end, it was the Spanish who were doing their victory dance -- Castilians, Basques and Catalans, Barcelona players with Real Madrid players -- all together bouncing and singing in unison.

For the first time ever, Spain are the World Cup champs and they certainly earned it with their ability, their approach to the sport and their execution in the big moments in this World Cup.

Brad Feldman is the television and radio play-by-play voice of the New England Revolution and supervising producer for all of the Revolution's regional telecasts. He is host of the online programs RevsWrap and In the Net and has 12 years of experience announcing and producing MLS and international soccer TV. He will be blogging on the FIFA World Cup for ESPN Boston throughout the tournament.