Johannesburg: Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta’s nerveless finish in extra time delivered a knockout blow to Netherlands in a bruising final to clinch a 1-0 win and their first World Cup triumph at the first African finals.
With a shootout looming, the peerless Iniesta controlled a ball from substitute Cesc Fabregas four minutes from time and found the coolness that had eluded forwards on both sides to fire the ball past the helpless Maarten Stekelenburg.
The Dutch, who ran fuming to referee Howard Webb convinced the goal was illegal on at least two counts, were already down to 10 men following John Heitinga’s red card seven minutes earlier and there was little realistic hope of a comeback.
Spain succeeded in keeping their opponents at arm’s length and their players wept with joy as they celebrated becoming the first European team to win the World Cup on another continent and the first to triumph after losing their opening game.
“Euphoria, joy, everything positive,” Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso told reporters. “The only thing that counts in finals is to win them.”
There followed a firework celebration but the soccer itself had fizzled rather than sparkled as Spain became the lowest scoring team to win the World Cup.
They managed only eight goals in their seven games — three fewer than the previous lowest total in a winning campaign.
For the Dutch, who knocked Spain out of their cultured stride for long periods and should have taken the lead with one glorious chance for Arjen Robben in the second half of normal time, defeat was an all too familiar disappointment.
While Spain were triumphant in their first final, the Dutch have now lost three, following defeats in 1974 and 1978.
The Dutch tactic on Sunday was clearly to frustrate the superior Spanish midfield with some brutal tackling.
There were 13 yellow cards as well as the red, eight of the cautions for the Dutch and five for Spain, who got dragged into a street fight in front of a raucous crowd when they would have preferred a more gentlemanly contest.
So a match billed as one for the purists turned out to be anything but — it was tense, bad-tempered and had little of the skill the two technically accomplished sides had demonstrated throughout the tournament.
Spain briefly showed some of the precision passing and artful movement that made them such worthy European champions two years ago, Xavi, Iniesta and forward David Villa combining effortlessly in what was a nightmare start for every Dutch fan.
The standard was soon a distant memory, though, as the rest of the first half degenerated into an ugly affair.
Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands side had chances to take the lead, notably when Robben cut in and tested Spain’s captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas with a low shot to his near post.
Robben missed a better chance from Wesley Sneijder’s precise pass, Casillas saving with a foot, and the winger appeared to be manhandled by Carles Puyol when racing through again.
Robben stayed on his feet when he might have gone down. Centre-back Puyol, already yellow-carded, escaped what might easily have been a sending-off and Spain breathed again.
The Spaniards had been creating a few problems themselves following the introduction of Jesus Navas for Pedro after an hour and they looked even more dangerous once Fabregas replaced Xabi Alonso towards the end of normal time.
However, Fabregas missed a great chance to put Spain ahead when Stekelenburg made a vital save in an echo of Robben’s earlier miss before central defender Heitinga’s sending off finally tilted the game Spain’s way late in extra time.
With forwards on both sides failing to deal with the intense pressure, it was almost inevitable that it would fall to a midfielder or defender to break the deadlock.
Iniesta, a candidate for player of the tournament, found the calm head and dead aim required to settle the match.
The Dutch were angry there had been no offside call and could not understand why a deflected free kick moments earlier had not resulted in a corner in their favour.
English referee Webb waved away their claims and was booed by the huge orange-clad contingent in the crowd, scarcely able to believe they had come so near and yet so far once again.
“That decision should have been a corner for us,” said Netherlands midfielder Nigel de Jong. “The goal resulted from the next attack. That’s football. We’re very disappointed.”
Victory sees Spain join Brazil (five times winners), Italy (four), Germany (three), Uruguay (two), Argentina (two), England and France as world champions and they are only the third side to hold the European Championship at the same time.
They were not able to produce the metronomic passing of previous performances but that scarcely matters to the millions of fans back home who were ecstatic that their team of talents had finally made an indelible mark on the World Cup.