It would have been a sporting travesty of the highest order if Holland had snatched the FIFA World Cup from Spain in last Sunday’s emotional and pulsating, albeit ugly, final. The Dutch, the nearly men of world football, contesting their third World Cup final, came agonisingly close to stealing the match from the Spaniards, but in the end, Spain’s beautiful passing game and superior technique happily triumphed over Holland’s cynical, ankle-kicking tactics.
Neither nation had previously held the World Cup aloft and there was considerable expectation that, at last, the Dutch would fulfil a date with destiny so cruelly denied to them in 1974 and 1978, when the “total football” of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep, Rob Rensenbrink et al electrified the world. Indeed, with a population of only 16.5 million, the Netherlands is regarded as the above-weight punchers of football – in many respects like the great West Indies cricket teams of the past – and for many last Sunday, the Dutch were the favoured underdogs. But after the game, even the great Cruyff was moved to condemn his countrymen and their “ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style”. For him, “they were playing anti-football”.
Spain, on the other hand, despite being perennial underachievers at this level, were the reigning European champions and, in spite of a slow start and a shock defeat to Switzerland in their opening game, were the form team of the tournament. Indeed, Spain were arguably the side playing the best and most attractive football in South Africa.
Of course, there have previously been serious miscarriages of justice in football and in other sports. The best team or even the most aesthetically pleasing team does not always prevail. Life, as we all know, is not always fair.
Rewind to the semi-final game of Spain 1982, for example, and the brutal foul by West German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher on Patrick Battiston which deprived the glorious French team of the 1980s, driven by the “magic square” of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernández, of an almost certain goal and perhaps football immortality. Fortunately, the West Germans got their comeuppance in the final against an Italian team inspired by Paolo Rossi and football justice was done, though too late to console the French.
Even in South Africa 2010 there were moments of supreme injustice and agony, such as the bitter defeat of Ghana by Uruguay, courtesy of a blatant handball that stopped a sure goal that would have given the Ghanaians a historic semi-final spot. That Ghana was unable to capitalise on the penalty kick awarded and subsequently lost in the penalty shootout was heartbreaking for the Ghanaians and their supporters. There was however no disgrace in their loss, except for the manner in which their fate was sealed.
England too could claim to have been thwarted by a refereeing error that disallowed a clear goal, which might have made their contest with Germany a more even one. Unfortunately, the English only flattered to deceive and their overpaid, pampered, under-performers paid the price, as they crumbled under the weight of expectations and their own hapless performance. Few would dispute that football justice was done in this case.
Many in England have blamed the dysfunctional governance of football in that country, the culture of excess and greed that has sprung up around football, and the primacy of club over country in a calendar that allows the players little rest. Not unlike the problems plaguing West Indies cricket, one might think, albeit on a different scale.
But ultimately, the football gods smiled on this World Cup, as Spain’s victory was a triumph for a football-mad nation and a triumph for their manager Vicente del Bosque and the players who remained true to their instincts and their “tiki-taka” passing style, best exemplified by the irrepressible work ethic and pinpoint passing of Xavi and the incisiveness of the equally indefatigable Andrés Iniesta. Spain’s game was marked by more passes than a matador’s cape and when the coup de grace belatedly came, the Dutch had no answer. Olé!
And it may be a little clichéd, but Spain’s win was a triumph for the game of football itself and in the end, justice was served.