Spanish flair rescues beautiful game from brutal final
It had been billed as a showdown between two of the beautiful game’s greatest exponents. Instead, it produced one of the ugliest finals in World Cup history, albeit an enthralling one.
The clash between international football’s great underachievers had all the ingredients of an historic final.
The Netherlands, home of the legendary Johan Cruyff, faced Spain, the Dutchman’s adopted country.
“Total football” took on “total football”, according to the pre-match script.
In the end, anti-football almost won the day.
The Dutch were all too happy to play the villains, picking up seven bookings and a red card as they systematically set out to crush Spain’s slick passing game.
How Nigel de Jong escaped a red card in the first half after burying his studs into Xabi Alonso’s chest remains a mystery.
“It's not our style,” Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk acknowledged. “But then again you play a match to win because it's a final.”
Cruyff himself proved far less lenient, describing his countrymen’s performance on Sunday as "ugly, coarse, harsh, hermetic, not pretty to look at and not good football."
Mercifully, the better team won – but by the narrowest of margins (1-0), and only after 116 minutes of territorial dominance had failed to translate into a goal.
A match marred by brutal tackles and the all too familiar share of diving hardly provided a fitting finale for an enthralling tournament.
Nonetheless, few would dispute the fact that Spain made for worthy champions.
Homage to Catalonia
Admittedly, this was not the best Spanish performance of the tournament.
Only in the latter stages of the game, as the Netherlands’ brutally efficient defenders finally tired, did Spain’s mesmerising footwork appear in flashes.
If anyone could claim to be the true heir of Cruyff’s “total football” it was indeed Spain, a team whose ability to confiscate the ball is reminiscent of the great Dutch side of the 1970s.
That exhilarating style of play was nurtured by Johan Cruyff during his time as a player at Barcelona, and later as the team’s manager.
It is still the trademark of the Catalan club, which provided no fewer than seven of the eleven players who made up the Spanish starting line-up during the World Cup.
No wonder the Catalan press has described the Spanish team as just an extension of the formidable Barcelona squad.
But it would be wrong to suggest that Spain has merely imported the Dutch game. La Roja’s slick, intoxicating game lacks the tempo and the goal-scoring aptitude of Cruyff’s Oranje.
Yet, crucially, it has succeeded in its first crack at the final, where the Dutch have failed three times already.