Viva Espana!

Spain etched its name in the history of international soccer yesterday with a 1-0, extra time win over the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final. Andres Iniesta scored the winner in the 116th minute, giving Spain its first World Cup crown and making it just the third team in history to hold the European Championship and World Cup titles at the same time.*

The victory was also a win for stylish soccer, as Spain stuck to its precise, short passing game and creative attacking movement in the face of disruptive and occasionally dirty tactics from the Dutch. There were 14 yellow cards in the game and one red, to Dutch defender Johnny Heitinga, with 11 minutes remaining in extra time.

In the 28th minute, Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong, the same fella who broke Stuart Holden’s leg with a nasty tackle back in March, karate kicked Xavi Alonso in the chest and somehow escaped without a red.

(Here was Holden’s reaction, in real time, via Twitter: “How is de Jong not sent off there?? Reckless challenge.. Again…” @stuholden22)

That play typified, at the extreme end, the Netherlands’ approach to the game: They wanted to disrupt Spain’s rhythm and, apparently, to intimidate them out of their trademark style of attractive soccer. Fortunately for Spain, and for the sport, it didn’t work. La Furia Roja kept playing its game and kept creating opportunities until finally cashing in on Iniesta’s strike late in extra time, after a pass from second half sub Cesc Fabregas:

Note the nifty backheel by Iniesta at the start of the sequence.

So why did the Dutch go so far with their physical tactics when they have a full complement of skillful players, seemingly capable of competing with Spain without breaking out the brass knuckles? Here is coach Bert van Marwijk after the match (via The New York Times)

It was still our intention to play beautiful football, but we were also facing a very good opponent. Spain is the best football country the past few years. I think both sides committed fouls. It may be regrettable this happened in a final. That’s not our style. But you do play to win.

Translation: We didn’t have faith that we could play with them, so we took our best shot at winning—pounding them wherever and whenever possible. And as for his “both sides committed fouls” comment, Spain committed 19, while the Dutch racked up 28.

So it’s a stretch to say that the Netherlands tried to play beautiful soccer, but they did create some chances, including two breakaways by winger Arjen Robben. On the first, he was thwarted by a desperation kick save from Spanish keeper Iker Casillas, and on the second, Casillas smothered the ball at Robben’s feet after a rugged challenge on the Dutch speedster by Spain defender Carlos Puyols.

There was an irony there, as Backpost reader Old 27 pointed out: Robben was in some ways the poster boy for diving at this tournament, but he stayed on his feet on this play. If he had gone down, Puyols likely would have gotten his second yellow (if not a straight red as the last man back) and the Dutch would have had a free kick in a dangerous area.

But that’s water under the bridge now. All in all, it was not a great final, but the better team did win, we got an exciting finish, and we avoided the dreaded penalty shootout.

Other big winners in this tournament were the host nation, South Africa, which staged a successful World Cup in the face of worldwide skepticism about its ability to do so , and of course, Paul the incredible soothsaying octopus, who went eight-for-eight in predicting matches down the stretch.

Unfortunately for the betting public, given the average life span of octopi, Paul will not be around to call matches at Brazil 2014

*Spain won Euro 2008; the others in this club are West Germany, 1972 Euro, ’74 World Cup; and France 1998 World Cup, 2000 Euro.

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Top 5 World Cup Finals

No matter which team wins today’s titanic semifinal between Die Mannschaft and La Furia Roja, we are guaranteed a classic matchup in the World Cup final on Sunday.

Whether it’s Germany vs Netherlands in a reprise of the 1974 final, or Spain vs Netherlands in a battle of superstar midfields, we’re going to get a game with the potential to crack the following BP Top 5 Greatest World Cup finals:

5. 1966: England 4, Germany 2

We’ll throw England a bone, lord knows they need it: This high-scoring, back-and-forth, and controversial affair delivered the Three Lions their first (and last?) World Cup title. The controversy, Geoff Hurst’s shot that hit the crossbar, then the goal line and was ruled in—was echoed in this year’s Germany-England Round of 16 game, when Frank Lampard’s clear goal was ruled out:

4. 1986: Argentina 3, West Germany 2

West Germany appeared to be toast after Jorge Valdano put Argentina up 2-0 in the 55th minute. But Karl-Heinz Rummenigge pulled one back in the 74th and second-half sub Rudi Voller equalized in the 80th. The German fans had barely settled back in their seats when, three minutes after Voller’s strike, the tournament’s best player, Diego Maradona, sprung Jorge Burruchaga with a brilliant pass for the game winner:

3. 1958: Brazil 5, Sweden 2

The seven goals in this one are the most ever in a World Cup final, and two came from 17-year-old Pelé, including this gem, in which he beats two defenders in the box, the second by flipping the ball over the player’s head then volleying it—before it hits the ground—into the back of the net.

Did we mention he was 17?:

2. 1954: West Germany 3, Hungary 2

With Ferenc Puskas running the show, The Mighty Magyars of Hungary were the dominant world power at the time. They entered the final on an unbeaten run of 31 games, and had trounced Germany 8-3 in the group stages just two weeks earlier.

When Puskas opened the scoring just six minutes in, and the Magyars doubled the lead two minutes later, another rout seemed imminent. But Die Mannschaft amazingly tied it up with goals in the 10th and 18th minutes, and got an 84th-minute winner from Helmut Rahn to complete the stunning upset. Check it out, in b&w and color:

1. 1970: Brazil 4, Italy 1

This was Brazil—and soccer—at its finest. Pele opened the scoring with a great header 18 minutes in, and Italy’s Roberto Boninsegna tied it up in the 37th. But after that the Selecao took over: Pele had two assists in a three-goal second-half rampage, which ended with arguably the greatest goal in World Cup history—Carlos Alberto’s rocket from the right after eight Brazilians had touched the ball and Pele put it on a platter for him. Enjoy (and note Clodoaldo beating four Italians in midfield at the start of the sequence):