By Adam Vaccaro
The World Cup Final: To the tune of one last song from the vuvuzelas, in front of 90,000 fans and hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide, following the first tournament appearance of the great Nelson Mandela, and with each side playing to lift the World Cup trophy for the first time, Spain and the Netherlands took to the pitch in the 19th World Cup final at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. And after having dominated the four-year cycle just passed, Spain again found a way to win and deservedly celebrated its first world championship.
It took La Furia Roja over 120 minutes to reach glory. The Dutch, who were not shy about looking ugly if it meant victory, played physical, cautious soccer that yielded very little in the way of opportunity but effectively disrupted Spain's flow and kept them off the scoreboard through regulation and most of extra time. But the Spanish attack, all tournament long blending patience and talent at just the right portions to claim victory, found their winning strike in the 116th minute when Andres Iniesta sent Cesc Fabregas's set-up on net and past Oranje keeper Maarten Stekelenberg. Iniesta's goal got the celebration started on the field and across his once-divided home country, and when time expired minutes later to a 1-0 final, a new champion was crowned.
The game itself wasn't pretty. The 1-0 final won't excite everybody and marked Spain's fourth straight victory by that score. La Furia became the lowest scoring champion in tournament history, having scored only eight times in seven matches. Penalties were also an issue. Holland was booked nine times tying a World Cup record and Spain added five of its own. The match's sixteen total bookings were the most ever in a Final. It's hard to fault English referee Howard Webb, though. Holland was extremely physical in looking to keep Spain off the scoreboard, and that manifested itself in a number of hard fouls.
People will disagree with me here, but it's equally hard to fault the Oranje. They knew how to beat Spain: keep the match even, then find a quick break in the middle of the park to score. Twice they found that break, but they were unable to score. In one instance, Arjen Robben found a breakaway in the second half and had he got one more inch on his left-footed bid, he'd have scored. But Spanish captain Iker Casillas, who would later be given the Yashin Award as the tournament's top keeper, came out of the net to make a fantastic kick save and keep the match scoreless. If the Dutch were to claim victory, they needed to take advantage of those rare opportunities, and they couldn't. They had the right idea, but the Dutch trademark role of coming up short lives on.
La Furia, for so long talented but without reward, is the eighth World Cup champion and regains FIFA's number one ranking from Brazil. The Kingdom of Spain now begins its reign over the soccer world.
Following the match, Diego Forlan was awarded the tournament's Golden Ball award as the team's best player. Forlan scored five goals and was a physical presence up top for Uruguay, pacing the fourth-place Celeste's attack. Germany's Thomas Muller won the Golden Boot for most goals scored. Muller scored five goals, as did Forlan, Spain's David Villa, and Holland's Wesley Sneijder, but did so in six games having missed his team's semifinal loss to La Furia with a suspension. The 20-year-old was also named as the tournament's Best Young Player.
What's next: While Spain will celebrate with force for the foreseeable future, it's back to the drawing boards for everyone else as a new cycle begins. Over the next four years, new coaches will take the helm, young teams will develop into potential powers, older squads will be forced to turn over, confederation tournaments and the Olympics will come and go, Brazil will prepare to host in 2014, and the process will begin anew.
The usual suspects Brazil, Argentina, the Dutch, Germany, England, presumably Italy, maybe France will remain strong. Germany in particular, based on their performance this tournament and their youth, is likely to develop a lot of momentum by the time 2014 rolls around. Chile and Switzerland are also a couple of up-and-comers with a lot of potential and could make substantial progress over the next four years. The new champs are sure to remain a threat as well.
As for the United States? The game continues to grow and superstars have been born, but the Yanks are going to need to develop a consistent scorer up top. Bob Bradley may be back for a year or two, but the team will likely have a new coach by the time they get to Brazil and most fans will hope that it will be a high-profile, internationally experienced manager that can take American soccer to the next level.
If you found yourself hooked to soccer by the tournament, there will be plenty of international soccer to watch going forward, including an American friendly against Brazil on August 11. The quality of MLS play pales in comparison to that of the World Cup, but it's worth taking a look at, as following the Revs fresh off a massive upset against the LA Galaxy, the league's top team at least allows for geographic and club loyalty. European soccer is also pretty easily available stateside these days if quality of play is tantamount to your soccer-watching experience.
South Africa can celebrate having hosted a fantastic World Cup, and that celebration will be thick in spite to the many doubters across the globe who didn't think Africa was ready for a World Cup.
I'm biased, but I do sense that there was more of a buzz around the tournament this time around. The tournament generated great ratings in America and, as a generation born into a global village continues to come of age and eventually to power, it makes sense that the importance of partaking in the world's most popular sport will continue to grow in the public consciousness. The tournament produced great moments, solid play, and a new champion. It was a fun and exciting month, and I think most reasonable sports fans recognize it as such.
Quote of Note: "Every World Cup has its own history and its own culture. It was a World Cup in a new continent with new culture and therefore it must be analysed on different levels. If you look at the enthusiasm in South Africa and the TV audiences around the world then it was a special World Cup." - FIFA head Sepp Blatter on the day of the 2010 final.