My World Cup: Spain worthy winners! Dutch deserved losers

By Paul Gardner

Spain triumphant, worthy winners! The Netherlands dejected -- and deserved losers. This was terribly disappointing from the Dutch. In fact their play at times bordered on the disgraceful. Not what was to be expected in the grand final.

But there was not too much “grand” about this game. For the umpteenth time, a grand soccer final has let us down. The quality of the game has not lived up to the pretensions of the occasion. No blame attaches to Spain, here. The Spanish continued, as they have done throughout the tournament, to play their skilled soccer, weaving their intricate web of passes, despite repeated provocative fouling from the Dutch.

So the Dutch did what they set out to do -- and what the Swiss and the Hondurans and the Paraguayans and the Portuguese and the Germans had also tried to do. Stop Spain from playing. The other teams tried to do it, by and large, without resorting to overtly foul play. The Dutch just forgot about fair play -- and hoped to get lucky with a breakaway goal.

The Swiss made it work. No one else did. And spare a thought for the Chileans, the only opponent that tried to play an open attacking game against Spain. At least Chile gave us an enjoyable spectacle before it went down, with colors flying.

We saw this crudely physical game from the Dutch four years ago in a brutal game against Portugal -- the famous game that featured 16 yellow cards and four reds. The referee, Valentin Ivanov of Russia, unfairly got the blame for that, when it should have been the attitude of the players, particularly the Dutch, that was condemned.

Yesterday, referee Howard Webb came close to facing a similarly impossible situation. But where Ivanov had to deal with 22 players who seemed intent on mayhem, Webb got off more lightly, for the Spaniards, on the whole, refused to be drawn into the fray and managed not to commit the damaging retaliatory fouls.

Even so, Webb flashed 14 yellows and one red, and I think he should have shown a few more. Mostly to the Dutch -- who were damn lucky they survived until the 109th minute with 11 men on the field. It was, I repeat, a very disappointing performance from the Netherlands, from a team that had been playing good soccer to reach the final.

There was little sign of good soccer from the Dutch yesterday. Were things as bad as Ruud Gullit gloomily pronounced from the ESPN studio after the game -- “The game was terrible ... it was boring”? Probably not, but there was precious little to get excited about.

I would make Andres Iniesta my MVP -- of the final (and not just for the goal that he scored), of the tournament -- and maybe of the sport of soccer over the past two years. For these reasons: Spain has been carrying the torch for the skillful as opposed to the physical game for quite a few years now -- maybe as long as a decade. It has done so unflinchingly, never modifying its game to match might with might.

Its victory in the European Championship two years ago was a mighty reward for its faith in its traditional soccer -- a faith that had been sorely tested by 44 years without a trophy.

Iniesta was an ever-present member of the 2008 Euro champions, and his importance grew as the team headed for the 2010 World Cup. To have a team based on skill -- in other words a team that, unlike so many modern teams, is faithful to the origins and traditions of the sport -- means having supremely skillful midfielders.

It also means having midfielders who know how to take a battering. That ought never to be the case. Players who want to play soccer as it was originally conceived, who want to display its many intricate skills, should not have to prepare themselves to withstand assault and battery. But that is the modern reality.

Iniesta is a small man – 5-foot-7. But he stands mighty tall on the field, takes his inevitable knocks and simply keeps on doing the right thing -- playing skillful soccer. By doing that, he has struck a huge blow for the sport, the real sport, of soccer.

One hundred and forty seven years ago, in England, there was a famous meeting of “football” aficionados which quickly split into two opposing camps. Those who favored the physical game broke away and played rugby. That ought to have been the end of the matter -- but that split has never quite vanished -- the physical knock-‘em-down, gotta-see-blood proponents still haunt the sport of soccer.

Sometimes, it almost looks as though another meeting should be called. Those who are still pressing for a physical game can split off once again and go away and do whatever they like. Who cares, just as long as they leave the skill proponents to carry on the unique traditions of the game.

Iniesta has shown, and has helped his team show, that skill can triumph, that the small man can be decisive, that attractive soccer can be winning soccer. And it would be unfair not include his teammate, both on the national team and at Barcelona, Xavi, in the same category.

In that sense, I pity the Dutchman Wesley Sneijder, another skilled small man -- but one who found himself yesterday entangled in a team that decided to play rough-house soccer. Not Sneijder’s game, and it left him a forlorn marginal figure among the Dutch he-men.

So soccer gets yet another reminder that it needs shaking up. Spain, wanting to play the purest soccer, found it difficult to do so. Not because opponents were better, in a soccer sense, but because they were so utterly defensive, or because, in the case of the Netherlands, they resorted to physical intimidation and provocation.

Is that how we want the sport to continue? When a team that wants to play attacking, flowing, attractive soccer -- the real game -- must prove itself in boring chess-matches or ugly battles before it wins anything? I do not suggest that a skilled team should not have to struggle, but those struggles should be built around the unique qualities of the sport of soccer, not based on shamelessly negative tactics or willfully rustic tackling.

How much longer will it be before FIFA realizes it is not doing nearly enough to save its sport from scared coaches and dangerous thugs? If that line of reasoning does not appeal to Sepp Blatter and his cohorts, then how about this: How much longer do we have to wait before we get a final worthy of the glories of this sport?

23 comments about "My World Cup: Spain worthy winners! Dutch deserved losers".
  1. Christopher Holden, July 12, 2010 at 12:39 a.m.

    Mr Gardner you need to get a new set of glasses. Both teams went physical and slowed each other down with filthy dirty fouls. Webb let the big red card go in the first half when Xabi Alonso was kicked in the chest. The Spaniards were equally dirty pushing and pulling up and down the field all night long, particularly in the box on corners and on anything to Robben. Joan Capdevila and Carles Puyol could have had a couple of red cards each, and I think every Spanish midfielder deserves an academy award along with their world cup medal. For once Robben didn't dive when he could have on that attempted tackle down the middle - LOL! Rustic tackling and swan dive drama is how the game is played at the highest level of play -- you saw it today. Ask Villa how often he fakes a dive ... 60%, 75%, or more! What sickens me is that Webb is supposed to be a great EPL referee and he should know all about that diving crap -- clearly he got duped too. For the second time in the tournament the Spanish defensive four looked weak and they had to bring midfielders back to cover their lack of skill. Yes Ramos can go up the field and make crosses, but he looked terrible clutching and grabbing orange shirts all night long. The team that got away with the most fouls won the game, not the most talented footballers. It was sad to see both teams resort to those tactics. I wanted to see a shootout and the best keeper win. You have to say Casillas was the difference today. He won that game.

  2. Larry Beguin, July 12, 2010 at 4:45 a.m.

    Thank you for your commentary on a game which left some doubt that the better teams of the 2010 FIFA World Cup were represented in the final match. Many of those of us who watched Germany and Uruguay play on Saturday felt that match to be truly representative of football at its highest skill level. No cry babies taking dives in that game.

  3. karl ortmertl, July 12, 2010 at 5:04 a.m.

    I'm totally with Paul Gardner that soccer could be so much more enjoyable if we were able to remove the thug-ism from the game. It needs to be officiated like basketball where everything is called. The idea that a referee should pick and choose when to call a foul is ludicrous, but that's what's happening now. All fouls need to be called, which means that a more granular system of fouls is required. For example, four fouls and you're out without a substitution. A yellow counts as two fouls and a red counts as four. Regular fouls, not penalized now (other than, at times, a free kick) count as one. Watching the scrum in front of the goal everytime there's a corner kick or a free kick is watching insanity. There's usually a dozen or more blatant fouls to chose from - that are never called. Until this is done, every game in every match will come down to this endless debate about the fouls. Its absolutely nuts

  4. Mark Schatz, July 12, 2010 at 9:03 a.m.

    I also agree with Mr. Gardner's commentary here about the game. The question he poses near the end regarding how the Dutch played yesterday really sums it all up: "Is that how we want the sport to continue?" Regardless of what your team allegiance might be, the answer for everyone who loves the game clearly is No.

  5. Loren C. Klein, July 12, 2010 at 9:22 a.m.

    "for the Spaniards, on the whole, refused to be drawn into the fray and managed not to commit the damaging retaliatory fouls."

    You're completely kidding, right? The Spanish were just as cynical as the Dutch were, and continued it long after the initial fouling onslaught by van Bommel and de Jong, with Carlos Puyol front and centre with his two-footed lunge from behind on Wesley Sneijder as well as his attempted rugby tackle on Robben after that through ball. Add in typical Spanish gamesmanship (Iniesta's dive when Heitinga literally brushed him to get sent off was especially egregious), and in the end the Spanish were no better than the Dutch. As for the actual game, the Dutch completely neutralized the Spanish apart from some small stretches due to the fact they defended high up the pitch and pressed very well (when they weren't fouling, that is), so all of these statements about a "wonderful" victory for Spain are simply by ignorant people who saw what they wanted to see. Finally, speaking of ignorant, just stop this "Iniesta for Player of the Tournament" talk. Making 4,958 horizontal passes does not make you great; taking your team by the shirt and dragging them to victory does, and that was that Diego Forlan did the entire tournament. Fantastic goals (The only player to make the Jabulani do what he wanted), courageous leadership, taking his team to heights not seen for 40 years, and genuine humanity made him the only true candidate for the award.

  6. Kent James, July 12, 2010 at 9:25 a.m.

    Excellent analysis Paul, especially in the way you put the importance of the Spanish win to the overall state of the game. This game should have been a dream final, with two nations known for their skill and artistry on the ball going after it. Unfortunately, the game was, for the most part, not a display of attractive, attacking soccer. Maybe if Stecklenburg had not made a great save on the Spanish (Puyol?) header in the first few minutes, and the Netherlands had been forced to attack, instead of sitting back and waiting for the counter. There were some flashes of brilliance, but too much of the game consisted of the Spanish knocking the ball around a packed Dutch defense. I love the way the Spanish play (Iniesta and Xavi are truly brilliant, though twice Iniesta squandered excellent scoring chances by not wanting to use his left foot), but the Spaniards do have one weakness; only one of their starters (Villa) likes to shoot! Fabregas was willing (when he came on), and perhaps Torres when he's healthy, but they have so much possession within scoring distance but so often fail to pull the trigger...
    Webb did a very good job under difficult circumstances (trying to distinguish between legitimate fouls and diving, when everything's on the line). I'm glad you likened the game to the Dutch-Portugal game in the last WC, where it really was the players' fault the Russian referee had given out so many cards (although in that game, I thought both teams were equally guilty). The players made Webb's job difficult here also. De Jong's cleats to the chest of Xavi Alonso clearly should have been a red card (what was De Jong thinking?), though I'd guess Webb was very reluctant to eject a player so early in the match, because that probably would have decided the game right then and there.
    Although it is counterintuitive, I think one way to reduce thuggery is to allow teams to replace players who have been ejected. This would make referees less reluctant to eject players, especially early in the match, and would also make referees less likely to determine the outcome of the game (since a team playing a man down almost always changes the dynamic, and usually not for the better). I don't doubt that one reason Webb did not call Puyol for his foul (though I thought it looked worse in real time than on replay) on Robben's break away was that had he called the foul, he would have been forced to eject Puyol. With limited subs, teams might not be able to replace a rejected player, but that would only happen near the end of the match when the loss of a player would be less significant.
    Here's to hoping teams will emulate the Spanish, and try to play attacking, skillful soccer!

  7. Felix Moyano, July 12, 2010 at 9:35 a.m.

    Fantastic article by Mr. Gardner. There's no question the better team was Spain and their futbol should be the standard around the world.

  8. Steven SIegel, July 12, 2010 at 10:15 a.m.

    The Dutch came into the game looking to take out the Spanish players. So many high boots, I thought they were auditioning for the Rockettes. Completely cynical. The Spanish did well to pen in Robben along the sideline, taking away his infamous curling shot to the far post. so he switched to center forward where he got his chances, but it wasn't enough. A fine game for the Spanish who had to fight through so many hard, hard fouls. Despite a rough game, they came away smelling pretty.

  9. Austin Gomez, July 12, 2010 at 10:23 a.m.

    Superb article, as always, by the renowned journalist, Sir Paul Gardner!

    The REAL WINNER was Spain! The REAL LOSER was the SPECTATORS, who watched 'en vivo' or via the Television!

    What a SHAME!, What a SHAME!, What a SHAME!...Who to BLAME!, Who to BLAME, Who to BLAME!

    The buildup and the potential outlook shaped this Championship WC Final as one of the Best WC Matches in History to be seen, with the superb skillful Spanish players against the equally vibrant, artistic Nederland Players! But, the Holland Coach (who doesn't deserve to be mentioed, (a No-Nameless person!) is to BLAME!, surely NOT the FIFA Referee (Howard Webb) who tried to do all in his vested-power to teach & punish the 22 Players, when required, so that the Players would try to play properly under the existing Laws of the Game! But in the end, he proved to be unsuccessful! Perhaps, a few 'tweaks' in the Laws might be in order for the 2014 Brazilian World Cup!

    The GAME was a SHAME and Holland Coach is to BLAME (along with fellow co-onspirators: Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong)! ! !

    End of Story................austin

  10. Theodore Eison, July 12, 2010 at 10:25 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner:
    I am tired of the same article you write over and over again. Spain scored 8 goals in 7 games, most of those goals lucky at that. You must not like goals. You would rather watch pretty passing for the sake of pretty passing. You obviously also like diving, and don't notice it when Spain cynically fouls -- only when Holland does. Iniesta should have received his second yellow at the 77:37 mark, and went on to score the winner, which was made possible by a horrible call in which a corner became a goal kick. Howard Webb was a horrific referee, and this game was reminiscent of the 2006 World Cup, when every game was ruined by uneven yellow and red card distribution which was separated from the reality of the game.
    I honestly don't know why they allow you to continue to write articles. Soccer America would be much better without you. You really should move on.
    And face it: you're English, and you used to commentate on games, and yet you criticize the commentary on ESPN for being English. The pot calling the kettle black.

  11. Kevin White, July 12, 2010 at 10:55 a.m.

    So let’s hear what rule changes would be useful. There is no sense in talking about coaching philosophy of play and a better attitude. That won’t happen. The object is to win and that won’t change. Basketball and football change the rules recognizing that tactics and athleticism require it (time clock in basketball). What rule changes would “purists” be willing to tolerate to move the style away from defensive thuggery?

  12. Miguel Dedo, July 12, 2010 at 11:40 a.m.

    Dutch football. The game that Johan Cruyff disowned.

  13. Brian Something, July 12, 2010 at 12:36 p.m.

    For a second consecutive tournament, the Dutch exited the World Cup literally kicking and screaming in a disgraceful, shameful display. Good riddance to them! Maybe they'll get back to playing soccer, something they can do pretty well when they so choose.

    It was rich hearing Robben whine that Howard Webb should've sent off Puyol. Perhaps, that's correct. But Webb should also have definitely sent off De Jong and Van Bommell and probably Robben himself.

  14. Austin Gomez, July 12, 2010 at 1:29 p.m.

    RULE CHANGES that I would like to see before the next 2014 World Cup in Brazil:

    Any CAUTION issued in successive Games do NOT count as a 1-Game Suspension (in this manner, Spectators paying 'mucho dinero' will not be deprived of watching a 'Star Player' participation in the next Match: an example Muller in Germany's semifinal game (upon noticing that some YCs are 'cheap,' a non-true YC! (Also to remember would be, of course, that these chosen 30 center-Referees are the BEST Referees in their Countries, NOT necessarily the Best in the World)! My Set-Up would be: 2 YCs in the SAME Game = a 1 Game Suspension,
    1 straight RC = at least, a 2-Game Suspension, depending upon its severity,
    (in my Opinion, of course)!

    That proper Goal-Line TECHNology would be utilized with regard to a Ball IN & OUT of the Goal, sometimes awfully difficult to detect by the Human-Eye!
    (as per England v. Argentina match)

    That strict Law procedures would be enforced with regard to "grabbing" ("mugging" is a better word!) opposing Players inside the Penalty-Area before the taking of a Corner-Kick/Free-Kick!
    Issue CARDS at once AND/OR give PKs, if Ball is in-play & is committed by a Defender!!!

    Coaches should be more accountable for their own Players' Conduct or lack of, during a Match; wherein, a Coach should also be suspended for a Match/Matches, depending upon the Players' Misconduct & its Severity (since much of this 'unfair,' 'unethical,' unsporting' Behavior emanates from the Coaches' Pre-Game planning/tactical Instructions: as per Championship Final)!

    Not necessary to have any T.V. REPLAYS of AR "Offside' decisions because these AR-decisions are based on very quick responses in a matter of mili-seconds (unless it was deemed an OBVIOUS and EGREGIOUS Mistake by the Match Inspector, (as per Mexico v.Argentina match) --- in the fervent hope of "Getting-it-Right" 'For the Good of the Game'!

    Any "flagrant & gesture-filled" dissenting Actions/Words on the part of the Player (as per viewed in the Championship Final) would be considered as "insulting language" and dealt with a Red Card dismissal!

    SEVENTH (finally in my Opinion),
    There would be NO Penalty-Kick Shootouts: the Game was meant to be DECIDED on the Field, NOT artificially contrived. In the Extra-Time period, the Game could use any Substitute (NOT already having participated in the Regulation 90-minute Contest), Any other Substitute on their respective
    Benches could play until there was a conclusion: a Winner! (thus, Players would NOT be injured, due to FATIGUE, etcetera) --- the Game should be won on the Field by the Players, NOT necessarily by the Goalkeepers!

    Just a thought! In my humble Opinion!

  15. Karl Ortmertl, July 12, 2010 at 2:49 p.m.

    One thing that was missing in the commentary was the impact of the referee. Howard Webb is known in the EPL as severely pro-goon. The Dutch, knowing this, made their strategy to goon it up based on the referee assigned to the match. When Howard Webb was named as a World Cup referee, I was shocked. Named to the final was a disaster. The guy I like is Massimo Bussaca - he actually tries to promote fluid play with his calls - what a concept! This is the second straight World Cup final ruined by goon-ism. The Italians did the same thing the Dutch did in the 2006 final. In that one, Zidane, so disgusted with the poor refereeing, ended up head butting an Italian player in pure frustration. Its hard to blame the Italians, tho'. It was their strategy to foul repeatedly, knowing it wouldn't be called.

  16. Bertrand Hamilton, July 12, 2010 at 3 p.m.

    Who won this cup any way? Spain or Barcellona? This just proves you are at severe disadvantage if you try to win with legionnairs. Core based on club teams is the future and was the past (Honved, Ajax, Juve and now Barca). FIFA has to restrict the number a foreign players for us to get decent, free flowing games, along with clamping down on hooliganism on the pitch.

  17. Manoj Shivlani, July 12, 2010 at 3:53 p.m.

    For those of you would defend the Dutch by arguing that both sides were culpable, I need only remind you to watch the drop kick that DeJong put on Alonso in the first half. It was reprehensible and deserved a straight red. Forget Von Bommel's late and unnecessary tackles, Robben's incessant complaining, etc., just use the image where DeJong's cleats are thrust into Alonso's chest and then use whatever moral compass you have to make your subsequent point.

  18. Michael Schuette, July 12, 2010 at 6:17 p.m.

    It's not impossible to imagine a scenario where the World Cup, in general, and the Cup Final, specifically, start to show a decline in viewership/ticket sales/ merchandise...$$$ decline..that FIFA would begin to make some changes.

    The U.S., as a country, is particularly vulnerable. I know enough "soccer curious" folks who have watched a few Finals and they basically feel that they won't be fooled again by "the hype" their minds it has been proven once again, that soccer *is* nothing but extremely low scoring/boring/ with guys rolling around on the ground crying. Unfortunately they don't tune in to more games to catch some of the attractive/exciting matches.

    If mismanaged badly enough, the "magic" of any sporting event can start to disappear.

  19. Ken Morris, July 12, 2010 at 6:55 p.m.

    I for one do not want more silly rule changes in order to achieve more scoring. These kind of rule changes happen solely to capture the American audience. We Americans have sports ADD; we have to see large score lines or we believe the game to be boring. We have no appreciation for the artistry of the game, and we definitely cannot appreciate a good defense. I can tell from my living room couch when a player dives, so I know the refs can tell, too. I want to see the refs hand out fouls and yellow cards more often for dives. Do it early in the game a few times and the diving will stop, believe me. Also, if the current rules will simply be enforced equally throughout the game, the sport overall would garner more respect in America and would be much more enjoyable to watch.

  20. Richard Davieds, July 12, 2010 at 7:33 p.m.

    I enjoyed your article and if the Dutch Detractors need more evidence of the rough play have them read Johann Cruyf's assesment.

    My recommendation for curbing the rampant physical play would be to award a penalty kick after the accumulation of a specific number of yellow cards. This way the entire team would need to be vigilent of how rough they were playing. Count on the cards would reset after the penalty kick.

  21. Carl Hudson, July 13, 2010 at 10:56 a.m.

    To Ken Morris: Issuing yellow cards early did not stop the goonish play. Webb never wanted to issue the second yellows, so the match deteriorated.

    After about the third hard foul Webb should have stopped the game, summoned all the players to the center circle and said "The next hard fouls are RED CARDS! I dont't care if the game ends goalie ve goalie!"

    (or more likely 11 Spain players vs 1 Dutch goalie playing by his lonesome.)

  22. Manolo Fernández, July 13, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.

    From the 28 minute Netherland should have played with 10, maybe with nine. DeLong and Van Persie out. Then, Spain would have won easily and fairly.
    I agree with Mr. Gardner, and with Johann Cruyff too. It´s a shame this new style of the dutch team. In a few years, nobody will remember guys like Van Bommel or De Long. But I do remember Cruyff, no 14, Neeskens, Rep, Van der Kerkoff brothers or later, Van Basten, Gullit.
    Players like Iniesta, Xabi, Messi, Sneijder, Robben must be protected. They are the show.

  23. James Froehlich, July 13, 2010 at 12:12 p.m.

    Bravo Paul for a dead on analysis which as noted earlier was supported by the dean of Dutch football - Johan Cruyf. I have always loved both teams but in 15 minutes it was obvious which team was carrying the banner of the "beautiful game". One earlier post accused PG of not being interested in goals and only interested in passing -- to that I say GUILTY!! I could watch the Spanish midfield all day; the subtlety of their touches is almost miraculous and the runs off the ball to always ensure that several passing options are available is mesmerizing.

    Regarding those who are sick and tired of PG's articles, such as "Mr. Gardner: I am tired of the same article you write over and over again", I have a great idea -- DON"T READ HIM ANY MORE. However for those of us who still enjoy the official soccer curmudgeon, keep'em coming, Paul.

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