It is hard to believe and indeed accept that FIFA’s showpiece tournament is over, and that it will be another four years before the
Saturday evening’s third place playoff fixture in Port Elizabeth saw two of the surprise packages of the summer meet in what was arguably the most entertaining fixture of the competition. A previously unfancied Uruguay team stood up and made the world take notice with stand out performances from the likes of Diego Lugano, Luis Suarez and indeed Diego Forlan. If any doubts remained on English shores as to the talent of the Atletico Madrid striker, his performances in South Africa will have gone a long way to showing so much more of a player than he was able to demonstrate during his spell at Old Trafford. Standing in the way of one more memorable victory however was a Germany side who have earned a new wave of admirers the world over for their efficient if not flamboyant displays. While Bastian Schweinsteiger may have already made his name on the world stage, the likes of the lesser known Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Thomas Muller were comparatively unfamiliar outside of the Bundesliga but could now see themselves subjects to massive transfer bids in the not too distant future.
Despite a spirited display from the South Americans, including a brief spell in which they held a lead, Joachim Low’s side were ultimately too strong and victory was sealed thanks to Khedira’s cool headed finish in the dying minutes. Although a heartbreaking conclusion for Uruguay, there is absolutely no shame in their elimination. To have flown the flag for their continent following the earlier than expected exits of Argentina and Brazil is a credit to a nation that is beginning to reintroduce itself of the world’s stage. Many had predicted that this would be the tournament for the South American nations and although none of them made the final, Uruguay have certainly shown themselves to be the jewel in the South American crown this year. With the re-emergence in recent years of the European nations, most notably this year’s top three, perhaps South America is still lagging behind a bit.
And so to the final in Soccer City. It seems very rare that the two form sides in a tournament reach the final, but in this instance we were treated to just that. The Netherlands arrived in Johannesburg on the back of an unbeaten run of 25 matches, while Spain could boast of 50 wins in their previous 54 fixtures. Both phenomenal records, suggesting that whoever the victor, it would be fully deserved.
As is often the case however, it was a frustrating start to the match with the Dutch ultimately able to limit the Spanish style of play. Indeed it was the Netherlands who seemed most likely to score in the opening exchanges, although they could consider themselves lucky to have survived until half-time with 11 men still on the pitch. Mark van Bommel had stunned the world by avoiding the referee’s notebook throughout the tournament until the semi-final stage despite some aggressive and indeed often reckless attempts at a tackle, but he was not so lucky on Sunday as Howard Webb took his number in the first half. It was no surprise when the Netherlands were finally reduced to ten men as defender John Heitinga received a second yellow for tugging back Andres Iniesta, as the midfield maestro looked to attack the Dutch penalty area. A sending off was an inevitability of the Dutch’s aggressive attitude and series of industrial challenges. The only surprise in the dismissal was that it was that it was so long in coming, and that it was not van Bommel receiving his marching orders.
It was left to Iniesta to settle a tie which looked to be heading for the infamous shoot-out from 12 yards, neatly controlling from Fabregas’ pass to smash past Stekelenburg. The Dutch pleas for offside were rightly waived away, leaving them to rue their missed opportunities. Arjen Robben will not doubt be wondering what might have been, having found himself through on goal on two occasion, only to find himself denied by Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal. Much has been said on the Bayern Munich winger’s seeming inability or stubborn reluctance to use his right foot on a number of occasions. Perhaps a player more comfortable with both feet would have made more of these chances.
Despite a slow start to the competition, having suffered an opening defeat to the Swiss, the Spanish can feel that they are worthy first time winners of the World Cup. Many would suggest that they were not at their best until the latter stages of the competition but to have beaten such impressive Dutch and German sides is no mean feat. Indeed they were worthy winners on the night, outclassing their opposition with superior possession and making better use of the ball when they had it at their feet. After 120 minutes of play, the Netherlands had nothing else to offer. This may have been dubbed the tournament for the South Americans, but it culminated in a exhibition of European football at its finest, with the Spanish truly vanquishing their long-held title of the world’s greatest underachievers on the football pitch.