Spain rules the soccer world, winning the World Cup at long, long last.
It came after an exhausting 1-0 victory in extra time over the Netherlands on Sunday. Two years after winning the European title, the stylish Spaniards did even better.
This was a physical test of attrition that sometimes turned dirty — a finals-record 14 yellow cards were handed out and the Dutch finished with 10 men. In the end, it was Andres Iniesta breaking free in the penalty area, taking a pass from Cesc Fabregas and putting a right-footed shot from 8 yards just past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg with about seven minutes still to play, including injury time.
“When I struck it, it just had to go in,” Iniesta said.
For the Dutch and their legions of orange-clad fans wearing everything from jerseys to jumpsuits to clown gear to pajamas, it was yet another disappointment.
Even with their first World Cup title tantalizingly within reach, they failed in the final for the third time. This one might have been the most bitter because, unlike 1974 and 1978, the Netherlands was unbeaten not only in this tournament, but in qualifying for the first World Cup staged in South Africa.
Soccer City was soaked in Oranje, from the seats painted in that hue throughout the stadium to pretty much everyone seated in them. Unlike when they lost to hosts West Germany and Argentina in previous finals, the Dutch were something of a home team this time.
The Spaniards, though, were the winners.
“We have all done an incredible job,” Iniesta said. “I don’t think we even realize what we have done.”
They had pockets of supporters, too, to be sure, dressed in red and scattered around the stadium. They might have been the minority, but when the final whistle blew, they were tooting their vuvuzelas loudest in tribute to their champions.
The goal in the 116th minute came off a turnover by the Dutch defense that Fabregas controlled just outside the penalty area. Iniesta stayed on the right and sneaked in to grab the pass and put his shot to the far post. Stekelenburg barely brushed it with his fingertips as it soared into the net.
Iniesta tore off his jersey after the goal and raced to the corner where he was mobbed by his teammates. Several Dutch players wiped away tears as they received their medals as runners-up — yet again. They won every qualifying match and all six previous games in South Africa before the bitter ending.
The Netherlands now has more victories in World Cup games without a title than any nation: 19. Spain held that dubious record with 24.
Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk took off his silver medal as soon as left the podium, with a look of disgust on his face.
The Spaniards saluted their fans with arms raised high, then lifted their coach, Vicente del Bosque, in the air in celebration.
“This is immeasurable for Spain,” Del Bosque said.
Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the captain, accepted the trophy from FIFA president Sepp Blatter, kissed it and raised it for all to see while cameras flashed and confetti flew throughout the still-full stadium.
Soon, the entire team and staff gathered at midfield for a group photo. The players bounced up and down to the World Cup theme song, then took a victory lap as the trophy was passed to each member of the squad.
“It’s the most beautiful that there is. It’s spectacular,” Iniesta said, referring to the gold ball.
Aside from a European title in 1988, the Dutch have been classic underachievers on the pitch. Results never matched the talent. These were no Dutch masters.
Yet the Spaniards haven’t been much better. Other than Euro championships in 1964 and 2008, they rarely have contended in major tournaments. At least the Netherlands made those two World Cup finals and also got to the semifinals in 1998.
Second-ranked Spain started this World Cup in the worst way, losing to Switzerland. But Spain won every game after that, including a 1-0 victory over powerful Germany that was far more one-sided than the score indicated. No other nation has won the World Cup after losing its opener.
Yet the most dangerous player Sunday was Netherlands forward Arjen Robben. He had a rare breakaway in the 62nd minute after a brilliant through pass from Wesley Sneijder. He had the ball on his preferred left foot, but a charging Casillas barely got his right leg on the shot to deflect it wide of the gaping net.
Then it was Stekelenburg’s turn, holding his ground after a misplay in front of the net gave the ever-potent Villa an open shot.
As play opened up, the crowd of 84,490 got quieter in nervous anticipation of the goal that would win the World Cup.
Robben again looked as though he might get it with a burst of speed past the defense, but Casillas sprinted from his net and smothered the ball before Robben could take a shot.
A second straight World Cup final headed into extra time, with the goalkeepers unbeatable. Stekelenburg, relatively inexperienced on the international level, made a spectacular left leg save when Fabregas broke free early in overtime.
Before the game, former South African president Nelson Mandela received a huge ovation when he was driven onto the field on a golf cart. A smiling Mandela waved to the fans as the vuvuzelas buzzed throughout Soccer City.
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