Spains Andres Iniesta races off to celebrate his 116th-minute winner while Hollands Maarten Stekelenburg contemplates defeat.
  • Lars Baron
  • Spain’s Andres Iniesta races off to celebrate his 116th-minute winner while Holland’s Maarten Stekelenburg contemplates defeat.

RICHMOND, VA—At least it all ended with a perfectly good goal. No question about offside (Dutch whining aside in the immediate aftermath), no controversy—and also, importantly, no flukes, and no ridiculous Forlan/Jabulani special strikes from distance. Just a simple 6-yard pass into space to beat an offside trap, followed by a solid finish on a ball that frankly should have been finished. A basic bread-and-butter good soccer play, by two masters of the business, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta.

That play in the 116th minute has justly given Spain its first World Cup title. Yet, apart from the cheering in Spain, the biggest reaction to the final has been one of revulsion from the international media. ESPN pundits to a man criticized the way the game was played, especially on the Dutch side, and The Guardian is reporting as a matter of fact that the “display of anti-football” let Europe down.

The Dutch game plan was to knock Xavi and his fellow midfielders off their tiki-taka stride.
  • Jamie McDonald
  • The Dutch game plan was to knock Xavi and his fellow midfielders off their tiki-taka stride.

There is substantial merit to those complaints. Both teams clearly set out to be aggressive, and both teams in the opening minutes seemed a little too amped up. Referee Howard Webb did not want to have to produce cards early in the match, but within the first 20 minutes it was necessary to keep the match from spiraling out of control. But by then the tone had been set, and it’s not clear that the yellow cards provided much of a deterrent to the hard tackling. As a Manchester City supporter I’m an admirer of Nigel de Jong, but he really should have been sent off for his needless high kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso in the first half. In most matches, Webb probably would have shown red, but, probably to avoid the embarrassment of getting such a big call wrong, Webb settled for a yellow.

In the end, it was persistent Dutch fouling that did them in. John Heitinga was on a yellow when he tried to pull back Iniesta on the 109th minute, and by this point, Webb had no qualms producing the long-coming red card.

Most of the criticism post-match is being aimed at the Dutch, for three reasons: first, a sense that the Dutch lacked the courage to come out and attack; second, revulsion at the tactical rejection of the “total football” mentality that is Holland’s great contribution to the sport; and third, the fact that, at least according to the referee, the Dutch were the biggest offenders on the day: nine yellow cards compared to “only” five for Spain, and were whistled for 28 fouls, compared to 19 for Spain. One certainly, in the wake of that display of persistent fouling, can better understand why Dutch legend Johan Cruyff stated before the game that he hoped Spain would win.

Hollands best opportunities came from breakaways by Arjen Robben.
  • Laurence Griffiths
  • Holland’s best opportunities came from breakaways by Arjen Robben.

And yet, it almost worked. Arjen Robben had two golden chances through on goal in the second half to win the match, but could not convert either time—once due to an amazing—or lucky—kick save from Iker Casillas, the second with the help of a little uncalled tugging by Carles Puyol. Spain also had several good chances, but perhaps none as clear-cut as those that fell to Robben. And if Holland had taken the lead, that would have been very, very difficult to overturn.

Spain, however, had 57 percent of possession—12 full minutes more of possession while the ball was actively in play, and few could deny that they were the better team on the day, even though they were never comfortable. Indeed, it would be a shame if the criticism of the final is allowed to overshadow Spain’s achievement—not just winning, but blending attractive soccer with serious resilience and a willingness to give as good as it got in the tackling and toughness departments.

Spain won all four knockout matches 1-0, against four extremely tough opponents. The match against Portugal was a hard-fought nail-biter; Spain got its bit of luck against Paraguay when the South American side missed a penalty and eventually prevailed; Spain then bested European powers Germany and Holland in tight affairs. With (slight) apologies to those offended by analogies to other sports, that’s like a college hoops team winning the NCAA title by beating a No. 4 seed, a No. 2 seed, and two No. 1 seeds in the final four games of the tournament—all by single-digit margins.

Put another way, Spain stuck to its football principles even when they did not produce blowouts, and even when other teams tried to knock them off stride. The classic antidote to Barcelona-style passing football has always been and probably always will be the rough tackle, the attempt to physically intimidate and knock the slick passers off stride. Passing teams that can’t deal with it end up losing. Spain could, both by responding with aggressive tackling of its own and by refusing—albeit barely—to concede a goal.

The Spanish gave up a fairly cheap goal against the Swiss in the opening match but after that it was five clean sheets from six, a noteworthy display at any level and remarkable considering the level of opposition they faced. That’s a good thing too, because falling behind at any stage might have been fatal. But by not falling behind, Spain could keep passing that ball through Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso, confident that in time the goal would in come—as each time it in fact did.

So count this as a victory for passing football, albeit one made possible by defensive toughness and a certain unflappability—a refusal to let aggressive opposition tactics get under their skins. Spain were not only the best team in this tournament, they were the coolest—no flopping, no whiff of cynicism, no temper tantrums or histrionics.

Xavi and his likely successor as Spains midfield playmaker, Cesc Fabregas.
  • Jamie McDonald
  • Xavi and his likely successor as Spain’s midfield playmaker, Cesc Fabregas.

Such coolness is rooted ultimately in confidence and a secure knowledge that one is the best team. What’s scary is that Spain pulled this off despite Fernando Torres being well, well off his typical club form. This entire group of players should still be intact for Euro 2012, and most of them will be around for Brazil 2014; plus, outstanding new talent is coming through all the time at La Liga clubs.

In short, Spain looks set to continue to show the world both how to play passing football and how to play the game the right way in the next few years—with the further imprimatur of credibility that comes with being world champions.